The Tournament Players Championship produced the richest finish in the history of golf today, and one of the game's most poignantly memorable conclusions as well.
The sparse crowd at raw Sawgrass this afternoon will remember two electrifying moments.
One was Ray Floyd's instant of numb surprise when he realized that he had suddenly, and totally unexpectedly, been given a one-foot tap-in to win $322,000 -- a check three times larger than any other in the history of his game.
The other indelible lightning-flash instant was Barry Jaeckel's agonizing split second of despairing truth when he left a five-foot birdie putt that would have meant victory on the 72nd hole dead in the heart of the hole, but one inch short.
Jaeckel, who already had been hailed as champion by acclamation by the crowd; Jaeckel, who already had danced his way up the final fairway and blown kisses to the crowd, will remember that one inch forever since it cost the struggling tour rabbit not only $36,800 (the difference between the first-place check and that of a share of second) but a 10-year exemption.
The man swathed in unexpected jubilation was the redoubtable Floyd, who began the day in 12th place, shot 68 to finish at three-under-par 285, then made a par on the first hole of a playoff with Jaeckel and Curtis Strange to win.
That bonanza, which dwarfed golf's previous top prize of $100,000 in the World Series of Golf, included $72,000 for this TPC win, plus a $250,000 bonus for back-to-back wins here and at Doral last week as part of a hugely successful publicity gimmick called the Florida triple bonus.
Floyd, despite a sterling bogeyless round that included three one-putt saves of par and a chip-in birdie, did not win this tournament so much as it was given to him on a third-of-a-million-dollar platter.
On the first playoff hole (the 15th), Floyd, Strange (70) and Jaeckel (74) all saw their six-iron shots blown by a 30 mph wind into the left fringe beside the 175-yard par-3. Jaeckel, from a tough buried lie, wedged from 30 feet to six feet past. Floyd chipped to a foot. Strange, knowing that if he could sink his easy 20-foot bump-and-run chip, he would end the sudden death playoff, burned the edge of the cup and ended four feet past the hole.
The crowd started heading for the next tee, assuming at least two players, and probably all three, would make their pars.
Floyd's caddy, however, knew better. Sawgrass had been taking no prisoners all day and both Jaeckel and Strange were terminally shaken by recent events. "We may not have to play any more holes," he said, nudging Floyd.
"That's when the cash register started clicking in my head," said Floyd, who won $45,000 at Doral and now has collected $367,000 in eight days.
Perhaps Jaeckel, at that moment, was a cinch to fold. Throughout a day of Jaeckel-and-Hyde golf he had demonstrated a world of guts and an absolutely hopeless swing. On the first six holes, his wheels had come off entirely as he made three bogeys from woods, traps and rough, and saved two pars with 10-foot putts. Jaeckel was DOA at the seventh tee, his three-shot lead to start the day evaporated as he found himself in a five-way tie at two under par.
Prompted by self-disgust, Jaeckel battled back to birdie the ninth and 10th holes to take back a two-shot lead. After a bunker bogey at the 12th, he dazzled even himself with a 70-foot chip-in birdie at the 13th hole that left him so limp he flopped to the ground and did a backward somersault of delight. He thought he was home free. For a few minutes. Until he bogeyed the next hole. Suddenly, instead of a two-stroke lead, he was in a three-way tie since Strange and Floyd had each made birdies ahead of him.
For the last four holes, Jaeckel had no idea how he stood since the tour's new Vantage scoreboard system here was a disaster of noninformation -- a kind of disadvantage system. "I didn't know whether I was ahead or not until I got to the 18th green," said Jaeckel, who made the crowd roar with his gutty low wedge shot from 100 yards out on the short downwind par-5.
"How do I stand?" Jaeckel asked a marshal.
"Make this, you win," he was told.
That's when reality hit Jaeckel.
The 32-year-old is a charming smoothie with plenty of moxie that overcomes a swing that has two loops and never gets into the proper plane until the last foot to the ball. Jaeckel, who once spent two years (at age 19 and 20) as Dean Martin's personal pro, cart driver, buddy and general gofer, had the crowd, the CBS audience and this tournament in the palm of his hand.
But golf is the cruelest game and five-foot putts with a whole career at stake are what the sport is about. "The putt was downhill, down the grain, and the wind was behind me," said Jaeckel. "I thought if would be impossible to leave it short if I just put it in motion . . . I never though I'd missed it until it stopped dead in the chopper (mouth of the hole)."
Floyd, sitting in the TV tower above the hole, said, "My pulse rate doubled . . . I practically broke a leg climbing down the tower."
Floyd had a right to be ecstatic. He had already seen Strange, who was green high in two at the 18th, butcher a chance to close him out with a birdie. Strange had hashed a simple chip, seen it run back down the bank to his feet, then had to ge up and down to save par and tie Floyd.
So, at that cold, wind-swept playoff hole, and Strange had nerves strung to the snapping point. Jaeckel's six-foot putt never had a chance. The crowd's back arched. Strange's four-footer suddenly went from dull to the stuff of drama. The baby putt bled its way over the right edge of the cup and, out of nowhere, Floyd had a tap-in for the biggest money win in history.
"When I bent over that putt, I hadn't even finished my adding yet," said Floyd, who put himself in the thick of the fight with birdies at 11, 12 and 15.
For the late-maturing 38-year-old Floyd, who owns a millionaire's house on Indian Creek in Biscayne Bay, this was just another step up in his drive to reach the money-winning plateau of Tom Watson and Lee Trevino. "I've proved something to myself, and that's the person you have to prove the important things to," he said. "I think I'm approaching my peak right now."
For Strange, a tough-luck loser at Inverrary who has finished third, third and second in the last month, this was another failed attempt to get over the tour hump from money winner to just plain winner.
However, this tournament may have meant more to Jaeckel than to anybody else. "I've asked myself, 'Do I belong out here with the big boys?'" he said. "Well, this makes me feel a little bigger. I was under the gun and I didn't fold the way a lot of people thought I would, and like maybe I thought I would.
"I'm pretty proud of myself. I don't feel like I choked."
That, perhaps, is because he had not yet had time to digest fully the one inch that might well have changed his golfing life.