PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Faced with the strong likelihood of losing what had been a four-shot, back-nine lead, Martin Kaymer grabbed his putter, the same one that had lifted the golfing spirits of an entire continent, and took aim.
A lengthy weather delay had interrupted Kaymer’s march to a comfortable Players Championship victory: When the horn blew to suspend play, he had made no bogeys through 13 holes of the final round, and was sitting on a three-shot lead, in complete control.
Now, a few hours later, Kaymer was hanging on for dear life, spinning out of control, and playing maybe the most photographed golf hole in the world. The soft-spoken German never will be mistaken for a showman, but if there was ever a time and a place to show off, the 17th hole on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, while clinging to a one-shot lead, is a pretty tasty choice.
So Kaymer took that putter, the same one he used to win the Ryder Cup for Europe in 2012 near Chicago, looked well left of the hole at No. 17, and from 28 feet, 6 inches sent the ball on its way. Catching the slope, curling right, the white sphere ignored all the bad karma that Kaymer had imposed on himself since play had resumed — an ugly double bogey at No. 15, a failure to birdie the easy 16th, and a tee shot that easily could have found the water at No. 17, followed by an extremely poor chip — and somehow disappeared into the hole, the perfect line and perfect speed.
It was anything but a perfect par, but it was the defining moment of this Players Championship. Once Kaymer safely found the fairway at the difficult 18th, then used his putter twice — once from 10 feet short of the green, then from 3 feet for the win — he finally could celebrate. His one-shot victory Sunday over Jim Furyk, who started the final round six shots behind Kaymer and Jordan Spieth, was official.
“Obviously you cannot expect yourself to make that putt. I just played with a lot of instinct and there was a little bit of luck involved that the ball went in,” said Kaymer, who closed with a 71 to finish 13 under par and win for the second time on the PGA Tour, joining his only major championship, the 2010 PGA.
The Players considers itself the fifth major, since it has one of the best fields, is played on one of the toughest courses, and pays the most money (Kaymer won $1.8 million).
The tournament also provides for late drama with its closing stretch of holes, and didn’t disappoint this year, either. A 91-minute weather delay came at 5:41 p.m., when Kaymer was lining up a long birdie putt at No. 14, and Furyk was standing over a 2-footer for par at the 18th.
When play resumed, Furyk cleaned up his short leftover, then sat back to see if Kaymer would stumble. He wobbled, but steadied himself when it mattered.
“I played hard today. I played really well,” said Furyk, who has now finished second in consecutive weeks. “It’s more disappointing to have the lead and shoot 70 and have someone pass you up than to go out there and fire a 66 and get close. You’ve got to feel good about shooting a good number.”
Spieth shot 74, and found himself in almost an identical situation to where he was on Sunday at the Masters: After making a birdie on No. 4 — this time with a 7-foot putt, as opposed to holing a bunker shot at Augusta National — Spieth had the lead to himself in the final round, looking to win for the second time on tour, in one of golf’s biggest tournaments.
But just like at the Masters, that lead walking off the fourth green would prove to be the high point. Spieth, who hadn’t made a bogey in the entire tournament, finally dropped a shot at No. 5, when he hit a bad drive, was forced to lay up in front of the green, then missed a 25-footer for par.
That opened the floodgates. Bogeys at the eighth, 10th, 14th, and 15th, giving him five in an 11-hole stretch after going 58 holes without one. Only one more birdie, a two-putt 4 at the par-5 16th. A slide down the leaderboard, from 14 under to 10 under, finishing in a tie for fourth with Justin Rose (69), one shot behind Sergio Garcia (70).
“It’s not fun being that close and being in the lead on Sunday and not pulling it off,” Spieth said. “I’m disappointed in how I performed, but I think I’m on the path to good things.”
Kaymer took the lead for good when Spieth bogeyed No. 8, extended it to two shots with a birdie on No. 9, made it three when Spieth bogeyed No. 10, and saw it peak at four with a birdie at the 11th. On Saturday, Kaymer said his final-round plan was to be aggressive on the par-5 holes. He made three birdies, and wound up needing them all.
“The belief is always there. I knew that I could win a golf tournament again,” said Kaymer, who briefly held the world’s No. 1 ranking in 2010, but showed up at TPC Sawgrass No. 61. He’s expected to be ranked 27th this week. “Making those putts in those situations is quite impressive. I’ve done it in the past, and today again. It’s a great feeling.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.