Demolition derby golf reached its giddy apotheosis this afternoon at the Tournament Players Championship as a half-dozen prime contenders, plus a half-dozen pretenders, careened around the Tournament Players Club for five hours of emotion-wrenching elation and humiliation. The final elation was Hal Sutton's.
On a beautiful but windswept day that was heaven for spectating and hell for playing, 24-year-old Sutton, the hottest young player on the PGA Tour, was the last man with his motor running and his wheels still barely turning. He won by a stroke.
The folks who love the car crashes at Indianapolis and think professional wrestling is great sport would have been in ecstasy here. If you could measure the damage to a golfer's psyche and soul, there would have been several fatalities at the Players Club today.
In Sutton's wake, their egos battered and their pride in tatters, were John Cook, Bobby Clampett, Ben Crenshaw and Ed Fiori, all of whom held the lead alone at some point today and all of whom nose-dived down the leaderboard. Vance Heafner and John Mahaffey also had a momentary share of the lead on this spectacularly unpredictable day in which leadership changed 11 times.
Even with a tentative, worried bogey on the final hole that might have denied him the $126,000 first prize, Sutton shot a gritty 69--complete with gaudy tap-in birdies of less than a foot on the 16th and 17th holes--for a five-under-par 283 total and a one-shot victory over veteran Bob Eastwood.
"This is the Players Tournament and everybody's here. When I won at Disney World, people like Nicklaus and Watson and Floyd weren't there," said Sutton, referring to the only victory of his record-setting 1982 rookie season in which he won $237,434 and finished 11th on the money list. "One time in my life . . . I don't know if I'll ever do it again, but one time, I got 'em."
Ironically, Eastwood (69) was almost the only pro in sight who never had a chance to win. By "plugging along," he crept inconspicuously into second place, worth $75,600, for the best finish of a winless 12-year career.
Behind him, in a three-way tie for third in this windup a day late because of early-round rains, were Mahaffey, who had the day's low score (67), first-round leader Bruce Lietzke (71) and poor Cook, the second- and third-round leader who was almost in tears after a 75 with two double bogeys.
Cook not only blew a three-stroke lead on the front nine, but, on the 18th hole, hit one of the most embarrassing shots any pro will ever have to swallow in the clutch. As he stepped to the tee, Cook shared the lead, at five under par, with Sutton, who was in the clubhouse trying to forget that last-hole bogey which, it seemed, would cause a playoff.
Facing this 440-yard par-4 beast, made even tougher by a quartering wind in the face, Cook wanted to hit "a low fade under the wind . . . I was trying to hit it anywhere but where I hit it."
Where Cook hit it--into the middle of the lake--was bad enough, but how he hit it was worse. His snap duck hook--what the pros call a "left-to-left double cross," would have turned the face of a bogey golfer crimson with shame.
As soon as that atrocity had sunk to the muddy bottom, Sutton knew he'd won. Cook had to one-putt just to make double bogey on the hole. "There's not much more I'll say about that (shot)," said Cook, tersely.
This long, roller-coaster day had almost too many turning points, too many breathtakingly good and unbelieveably awful shots to keep the mind in clear focus. Nonetheless, one shot by Sutton will probably be remembered longest.
When he came to the tee of the already famous 132-yard 17th hole, he suddenly found the world around him a welcome place. All day, he had battled to beat this diabolically capricious 6,857-yard course while trying to keep his eyes off the leaderboard. That way, madness lay.
"I told my caddie (Freddy Burns) at the ninth hole, 'With this wind blowing, something's going to change on every hole. We're gonna have to quit lookin' at the board. Let's get with the game,' " Sutton recounted.
In fact, Sutton had asked his caddie all week to try to help him get his mind off golf, even while playing it. They talked about birds, clouds, anything that would relieve the tension.
Now, those scoreboards were telling Sutton he was in the lead alone. At the par-5 No. 16, he hit a finesse wedge up from a greenside gully to one foot for a tap-in birdie. "To hit that kind of fluffy shot, that's reachin' down deep in the bag for me," the powerful 6-foot-1, 175-pound Sutton said, grinning.
Almost sumultaneously, Fiori, latest in a succession of star-crossed leaders, was meeting disaster, drowning balls at both the 17th and 18th for two double bogeys.
When Sutton arrived at the 17th, leading by a stroke, the tournament reached its crescendo. Although "thrown for a loop" by watching Eastwood's nine-iron shot almost carry over the green into the lake, Sutton stuck with his original eight-iron decision.
"I don't like to tarry too much. The longer you wait, the more tension. I just carried through (with the decision)," he said.
Sutton's shot sped low over the water and tucked itself in the extreme right front corner of the green next to the stick. When the ball stopped trickling, it was perhaps 10 inches from the cup.
That crowd-inspiring birdie on a daringly dicey shot was Sutton's coup de grace. At the 18th, he chose wisdom over valor.
"If somebody had offered me a bogey on the 18th tee, I might have taken it. That's really chicken, I guess, but you don't have to stand out there," said Sutton, who played the hole commercially, laying up short of the green, then chipping to 15 feet and two-putting for bogey.
"We all knew it would be that kind of day. You had to keep your thinking cap on. Some didn't do it. I didn't know if I could. But I was able to steer clear," said Sutton, who did not three-putt or hit a ball in the water the whole tournament.