This was almost worth the wait. On day five, the weather-delayed Players Championship delivered moments worthy of its tournament’s lofty status.
The last three holes of the eventual winner, Cameron Smith, summed up the dramatic nature of proceedings. The Australian snap-hooked a drive into pine straw at the 16th, from where he bravely saved par. His tee shot at the iconic 17th was incredible for its audacity, aimed right at a teasing pin on a green surrounded by a pond. As Smith converted a birdie putt from four feet, his three-shot lead meant this looked all over bar the shouting.
Wrongly, as it transpired. Smith totally miscued a chip out from more debris at the 18th, with his ball bounding, bounding, bounding into water. The Australian had to escape with a bogey at worst and did, courtesy of a sublime 60-yard chip that rested within tap-in range. Smith’s final 18 holes included 13 single putts.
India’s Anirban Lahari could only par the 72nd hole, and Smith was $3.6m (£2.77m) richer. His day was the epitome of a golfing rollercoaster. Smith birdied five of his first six holes, and subsequently slipped to three bogeys in a row. After 14, Smith had only made par twice. By close of play, he was signing for a 66 and 13-under-par aggregate.
Smith cut an emotional figure alongside his mother and sister, who as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic were attending a tournament from Australia for the first time in more than two years. Lahiri finished runner-up by one strike, denied what would have been a breakthrough win for Indian golf.
At one point in this final round, there was a five-way tie for the lead. Included in that group was Paul Casey, who later had cause to rue rotten luck. The Englishman’s drive at the 16th finished in a pitch mark, denying him the opportunity to take on the par-five hole in two. Casey had to settle for third at 11-under.
“It was a shame because that was the best drive I hit all day,” Casey said afterwards. Keegan Bradley, another key part of proceedings for so long, finished bogey, double bogey – like Smith, he splashed at the last – and finished fifth, one behind Kevin Kisner.
There was even the whiff of controversy. In a scene totally untypical of top-level golf, Viktor Hovland and Joel Dahmen took great exception to Daniel Berger’s intended position for a penalty drop at the 16th hole. Norway’s Hovland, normally not one to get particularly excited about anything, was particularly vocal. Berger, stony faced, refused media duties after his round but was heard at the time to say: “I’m dropping here because of you guys but it’s a wrong drop.”
Hovland at least explained his point of view. “It’s not a fun conversation,” said the Norwegian. “Daniel’s game is great and I have massive respect for him as a player. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to protect the field and all the other guys … when you strongly believe in something, you kind of have to stand your ground.”
Dustin Johnson’s final round of 63, a tie for the course record, was rounded off by a hole-out eagle from 67 yards. “It would have been a lot better had I been in contention,” Johnson admitted. He had already departed Ponte Vedra as Smith just about clung on.