Going for it cost David Toms
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- A decade ago, on another steamy day, David Toms won a major championship when he elected to lay up, wedge onto the green and hole a putt.
The title at stake Sunday was not as big, but just as important to Toms, who has battled motivation issues while going more than five years without a victory on the PGA Tour.
A win at the Players Championship would have been a huge accomplishment at this point in his life, at age 44 and wondering how much good golf is left, the 10-year anniversary of his PGA Championship title just a few months away.
When Toms captured that PGA at Atlantic Athletic Club in 2001, he chose to lay up on the 72nd hole rather than risk going for the green. It paid off, as Toms got up and down for a par that beat Phil Mickelson by a stroke.
At the TPC Sawgrass, it was the 70th hole where Toms had a similar decision, but this time he went for the green with disastrous results, his hybrid shot landing in the water and leading to a bogey.
Scott Gneiser, his longtime caddie, was there for both swings -- and lamenting the Sunday decision as K.J. Choi celebrated a playoff victory while Toms had to wonder what might have been.
"We've laid up before to win golf tournaments, maybe we should have done it again," Gneiser said. "I wish I would have talked him into laying up."
Of course, Toms was hitting the ball beautifully. He was near or around the lead throughout a brutally long final day that included the conclusion of the third round Sunday morning.
He led the field in fairways hit, was tied for fourth in greens in regulation and there was no reason to think he wouldn't pull off this shot.
Toms had 233 yards to the front of the par-5 16th green, the one that has a pond to the right of the putting surface. It is a birdie hole, and at worst Toms should have made par.
"When he got up to me, he said, 'Do you like 2-hybrid?'" Gneiser recalled. "I said, 'I like it.' With a 1-shot lead, I'm thinking just get it left of the green, chip it down. And if K.J. doesn't make birdie we've got a 2-shot lead."
But Toms did not catch it solid, the ball drifting to the right and into the water. Instead of a possible birdie, it led to a bogey. Instead of a 1- or 2-shot lead, Toms and Choi were tied.
"And now I'm second-guessing myself," Gneiser said.
Toms put it on himself.
The Players Championship Leaderboard
1. Choi* (-13)
2. Toms (-13)
3. Goydos (-11)
T-4. Donald (-10)
T-4. Watney (-10)
T-6. 6 players tied at -9
*Won tournament on first playoff hole • More scores
"I got ahead of myself on 16," he said. "Seeing K.J. had to lay up already I probably should have laid up and hit a wedge up there and made par at the worst, but I felt like I could get it on the green and take maybe a 2-shot lead there and put a lot of pressure on him. So that was the mindset, and I just hit a bad shot."
Perhaps it had to do with not being in that situation very often in recent times.
Toms, whose 12 wins include the PGA and a WGC-Match Play title and is likely to be a U.S. Ryder Cup captain in the future, has struggled in recent years, his last victory coming at the 2006 Sony Open in Hawaii.
"You get to this stage in your career," said Toms' wife, Sonya. "He's a family guy and he misses his family and it's kind of hard for him to be excited about going away. In the previous years, he was kind of wanting to be home."
But at home in Shreveport, La., his son 13-year-old son, Carter, wanted to play golf. He often begged his dad to play. "I think it's great for David's golf," Sonya Toms said. "I think helps David get a little bit excited about his golf again."
Said Gneiser: "He got to the point where he was maybe kind of going through the motions. Now that his kid is playing, he wants to go play golf and David gets out there and has a good time with him. When you go home and after doing this for years on tour, normally you're hanging the clubs up and get away from it for a week or two. Now he's having fun out there."
David Toms spoke this week about how his son helped rejuvenate his game, and how having him in the gallery helped put things in perspective. Toms, who in 2003 had climbed as high as No. 5 in the world, was glad to let Carter see in person what it was like to get into this position, even if meant son crying in mom's arms when Toms three-putted the playoff hole.
"When I was really winning a lot of tournaments, he knew about golf and he was around some, but he didn't play it and wasn't into it," Toms said. "But now he is. It would have been nice to win today for him."
After Toms lost his advantage at the 16th, Choi birdied the 17th hole to take a 1-shot lead. But a clutch birdie at the 18th by Toms -- made after his drive came to rest in a divot in the fairway -- forced Choi to hole a tough 5-footer for a par that sent the tournament to a sudden-death playoff.
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Back at the par-3 island 17th green, both players knocked their tee shots on the green, but Toms powered his first putt past the hole, then missed the 3-footer coming back. It was an anticlimactic way for the tournament to finish, and especially tough given how well Toms had played throughout the day.
It is the nature of sport to question yourself in defeat, something that Gneiser continued to do afterward. He's been with Toms for a total of 12 years, and on his bag for 11 of the 12 victories. They've made a lot of good calls together.
He simply wishes he would have stepped in earlier, when his instincts told him they should do something different.
"That's the whole thing about caddying is saying the right thing at the right time," Gneiser said. "Sometimes you have to step up and say something. Sometimes silence is letting them go. He was pretty committed, and that's what kind of got me. He didn't say anything else.
"That's the caddie's thing, knowing to say the right thing at the right time. It's very important."
Afterward, when Toms had missed his 3-footer and could only stand by as Choi holed the winning putt, there was little else for Gneiser to say other than "keep your head up."
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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