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Laird falls just short in near-record comeback at TPC Sawgrass

PGATOUR.com

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Martin Laird didn't know what the biggest comeback in the history of THE PLAYERS Championship was. He just knew that strange things can happen on the Stadium Course on Sundays.

Balls find the water. Bury in the rough, too. More often than not, the champion survives rather than surges. His victory march is an abbreviated -- and relieved -- walk off the 18th green after the final putt mercifully finds the hole.

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So Laird wasn't particularly worried on Saturday afternoon when he found himself trailing Kevin Na by six strokes. And the Scotsman responded with what he called "one of the best rounds I've ever played" in firing a 67 that lifted him into a tie for second, two off Matt Kuchar's winning tally.

"I knew when I started ... that it's just not a golf course where the leaders are going to go out and shoot 4 or 5 under," Laird said. "It's just too tough and you can't play aggressive like that to shoot that, without taking lots of risks.

"I didn't have a specific number in my head but I knew if I shot 4, 5, 6 under, obviously more towards 5 or 6 under today, I would have a chance. Didn't mean I thought I was going to do it but that's where I wanted to go to, and I had that mind set starting out, and obviously to shoot 5 under, I was very happy."

Laird actually held a share of the lead with on the back nine Sunday after a string of three straight birdies, and five in a seven-hole stretch, that ended at No. 13. But he made two bogeys on the homeward stretch, the last at the 18th hole when he missed the green to the left of the greenside bunker and a 9-footer to save, to fall back into the runner-up tie with Zach Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Ben Curtis.

"It really was as close as I thought I could get it without taking any stupid risks and trying to like land it in the fringe or anything," Laird critiqued the wedge. "I hit a great shot and I hit a good putt. Just mis-read it. It's one of those things, my first look was left edge and I kind of second-guessed it."

Had Laird made that final par putt, the Scotsman would have trailed by just one after Kuchar three-putted the 17th hole for bogey. Those final 462 yards that stood in the way of victory might have been a little more difficult for Kuchar, who had beaten Laird in a playoff at The Barclays in 2010.

If anything cost Laird, though, it was a three-hole stretch on Friday after he had opened with a 65 and shared the overnight lead with Ian Poulter. The two-time TOUR champ actually reached 10 under with a birdie at the 15th hole before closing with a bogey at the par-5 16th, a water-logged double bogey at the 17th and another bogey at No. 18 on the way to a disappointing 73.

"There's no shots that's going to keep me up (at night); if there was, it would be Friday's finish," Laird said. "I got a little comfortable out there and I got a little aggressive on Friday. Turned what had been a very solid round into finishing 4 over my last three holes, because that was kind of the start of the domino effect there on 16. Just got to look back and learn from that.

"I'm definitely going to take the positives. I drove the ball great and putted great. My iron game was I would say average week. Looking back, at what I would say is an average week with my irons, and to be in contention at THE PLAYERS Championship shows I'm in the right spot."

For the week, Laird was tied for sixth in driving accuracy, hitting 10 of 14 fairways on Sunday, and tied for 21st in greens in regulation. He ranked sixth in strokes gained-putting, gaining 6.7 strokes on field, and fifth in total putts with 110 for the week and 27 in the final round.

Laird, who picked up his second TOUR win at Bay Hill last year, said he felt extremely comfortable during the final round. A par save at the first hole and 12-inch birdie putt at the par-5 second set a positive tone for the day. By the time he made his third birdie of the day, a 4-footer at the ninth, Laird felt like he had a chance and was ready to take advantage on the back nine.

"That's one of best rounds I've ever played under the circumstances, and the conditions," Laird said. "... It was one of those days that I had a nice feeling out there, I hit a lot of good numbers and really drove the ball well which you've got to do around this golf course."

Laird started the 2012 season strong, finishing second at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and reaching the quarterfinals of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship before bowing out to World No. 3 Lee Westwood.

Until Sunday, though, Laird's best finish since that tussle in Tucson was a tie for 24th at Doral. By his own admission, he'd been searching for confidence -- and he had shaken things up a little of late, consulting with Dave Stockton Jr. on his putting and hiring a new caddy in Shay Knight.

"Just last week at Quail Hollow, I was talking to my coach about it, I just don't have the confidence to stand up and make good swings on these holes," Laird recalled. "I found it this week for some reason. A good finish last week and hitting some good shots, as the week went on, built the confidence. ...

"It is my best finish in a big, big marquee event like THE PLAYERS, and if I can't take confidence in that, then I'm doing something wrong."

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