BY DOUG FERGUSON
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Si Woo Kim walked up to the 16th green at the TPC Sawgrass and couldn’t resist looking across the water at an island.
For those trying to catch Kim in The Players Championship, and for thousands of fans who anticipated the drama this tournament so often delivers, the infamous par-3 17th hole with its island green represented the best chance that the pressure might finally get to him.
He never flinched.
“I wasn’t nervous at all because I was leading,” Kim said. “I just focused on the middle of the green.”
Without so much as a deep breath, the 21-year-old from South Korea drew back his wedge, fired it at the middle of the green and resumed his march into the record book as the youngest winner of The Players Championship in its 44-year history.
And it wasn’t just that hole.
Kim also drilled his tee shot down the middle of the 18th fairway, setting up one final par — from off the green, of course — to cap a final round that was flawless, at least on his scorecard. He was the only player Sunday who didn’t make bogey in his round of 3-under 69 for a three-shot victory.
He never trailed after making a 25-foot birdie putt on the seventh hole. During the crucial stretch on the back nine of the Players Stadium Course, Kim never faced a par putt longer than 2 feet. It was as though he had been in this position before, even though he had only one previous PGA Tour victory and this was only his second time competing in The Players Championship.
“He played like someone that was doing it for five or six years, like it was just another round of golf,” said Louis Oosthuizen, who played the final round with Kim and finished in a tie for second with Ian Poulter.
“It just shows you how good a player he is and how cool and calm he is,” Oosthuizen said. “Never once did he look flustered at all.”
Kim saved that for the trophy presentation, when he realized he had beaten the deepest and strongest field in golf, and all the rewards that come with it. He earned $1.89 million, along with a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour, a three-year exemption to the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, and most likely a spot on the Presidents Cup team later this summer.
“I feel like I’m still dreaming that I won this championship,” Kim said.
It wasn’t a dream, even though he played so flawlessly and with so little suspense that he could easily have put everyone else to sleep.
Kim shot 68-69 on the weekend and made only one bogey on a Players Stadium Course that was even tougher because of a strong wind for so much of his final round. When he rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the seventh hole, Kim took the lead and never gave it back.
“As good as he played yesterday, he’s obviously gone out there today and played even better,” Poulter said. “He’s gone clean out there today, which is extremely impressive under that pressure.”
That’s not to say Sunday at Sawgrass was devoid of any entertainment, good and bad.
Poulter sure did his part. He only got into the tournament a few weeks ago when the PGA Tour realized a clerical oversight regarding his return from a foot injury last year. He made the most of it by becoming the only serious threat to Kim on the back nine.
Poulter hit what he described as a shank — “You’d like me to spell it for you?” he jokingly asked after his round of 71 — on the 18th hole, took a penalty drop from a palmetto bush, saw a gap in the trees, and hit wedge through it and onto the green, and he came within inches of making it. Instead, he tapped in for bogey.
The runner-up finish brought Poulter $940,000 and enough FedEx Cup points to effectively secure his PGA Tour card for next year.
Rafa Cabrera Bello of Spain was never going to win, but it will be hard to forget how he finished. Officially, he had only one putt over the last three holes. Cabrera Bello made the first albatross 2 on the par-5 16th with an 8-iron that caromed off the side of a bunker, bounced toward the hole and struck the pin before it disappeared. He followed with a short birdie on the 17th and a long par from just off the 18th green.
J.B. Holmes brought the wrong kind of a show — an 84, the highest final round of anyone who had at least a share of the 54-hole lead. He started Sunday in a tie for first. The big hitter from Kentucky finished in a tie for 41st.
Kim finished at 10-under 278, replacing Adam Scott in 2005 (at age 23) as the youngest winner of The Players.
“You have to respect some good golf,” Poulter said. “And that’s exactly what he’s done.”
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