Woods falls but Clark rises

Brian Murphy

These events at these ‘TPC’ courses always get me thinking about initials, and forever, the only initials that mattered in golf were ‘T.W.’

So how do we digest the initials ‘T.W.’ linked to the initials ‘MC’ (last week at Quail Hollow) and now, the new one, ‘WD’ (at Sawgrass)?

Moreover, this ‘T.W.’ character, for all intents and purposes, will be ‘MIA’ until further notice.

The only logical reaction is to make a ‘G’ rated version of a popular acronym and say: ‘W.T.H.’? (Or, for you initially challenged: What The Heck?)

What happens when Tiger Woods walks off a course with an injury and shakes the hand of Jason Bohn – there’s a trivia question for you years from now; Whose hand did Tiger shake when he WD’ed from Sawgrass? – and leaves us all bereft, and wondering?

Tim Clark happens; that’s what happens.

As if drawn up by the golf gods themselves, a Players Championship that seemed off-kilter because of the weird circumstances surrounding Tiger was won by a 34-year-old South African who, while turning in one of the finest rounds of the year, isn’t exactly sitting courtside at Lakers games.

Tim Clark called the people at ‘Q’ Rating HQ to get a rating, but they only took a message.

It’s as if our brains were too fried by the Tiger thing to even process a big-name winner.

No overt disrespect to the 5-foot-7 dynamo. His 67 – on a sadistic day where putative winner Lee Westwood shot 74 – was a study in concentration and skill. His bogey-free round on a terrifying, fast and hard TPC Sawgrass where fellow Sunday duffers Ryan Moore and Bohn shot 80, and Paul Goydos and Boo Weekley shot 81, is the best round on the PGA Tour since … well, there was that matter of Rory McIlroy’s 62 last week … so let’s just call it one of the finest 18 holes of the 2010 season.

If there was any overarching lesson, other than the reward that comes to a guy who tried 204 times in the States for his first tour win, it was that life in the golf world while Tiger sorts out his mess will be a mixed bag.

For every Phil Mickelson 6-iron from the straw at Augusta, there will be the low-profile sight of Ben Crane winning at Torrey. For every roarin’ Rory McIlroy shooting 62 at Quail Hollow, there will be the remember-him? win for a guy like Bohn in New Orleans.

There were two storylines that could have rocked the Players Championship: The obvious, of course, would be Mickelson’s bid to take over the No. 1 ranking in the world with a win. The other would be the validation of Westwood’s stellar play stateside with a triumph at the richest event of the year.

Neither happened. Lefty’s 74, while admirable on a run-for-your-lives sort of day, was the wrong direction for a guy who started the day five strokes back. And Westwood’s tee shot into the water on 17 symbolized the frustration of a player who is oh-so-close to a major championship win – paging Pebble Beach and St. Andrews – yet comes up agonizingly short in America.

That said, Clark is the kind of guy who could win a major, too. He finished 3rd at Oak Hill’s PGA Championship in 2003. He was the guy who wasn’t Shaun Micheel or Chad Campbell.

Clark finished third at Pinehurst’s 2005 U.S. Open. He was the guy who wasn’t Michael Campbell, Retief Goosen or Jason Gore.

And Clark finished 2nd at Augusta in 2006. He was the guy who wasn’t Lefty. In short, he’s the Zelig of the tour.

That kind of I-hear-you-knocking-but-you-can’t-come-in play means it could happen anytime. So is a 66-67 weekend at Sawgrass, when the rest of the field is backing up. When you make only one bogey all weekend, and when the third-round leader makes double on 17 alone, you have the right stuff. And Clark’s drive on 18 – surely one of the biggest knee-knockers in the sport – was a golf swing to die for, a bit of purity so righteous, so center-cut, that Johnny Miller wondered if you could ever hit that drive if given a bucket of balls.

The game was impressive, the win a milestone for Tim Clark.

It doesn’t mean the sports world will notice. We’re all too busy watching the guy in the red shirt and sunglasses get into a waiting SUV and driving away, to whereabouts unknown.

Scorecard of the week

70-71-66-74 – 7-under 281, tie-17th, Phil Mickelson, The Players Championship, TPC Sawgrass.

You get the feeling that a tie-17th, while not ideal, is causing barely a ripple in Lefty’s World.

Right now, in case you hadn’t noticed, by the way, it is Lefty’s World. You just happen to be living in it.

It’s party time, and it’s excellent.

With Tiger’s future as uncertain as ever, Pebble Beach becomes an extremely attainable jewel for the player who covets an elusive national championship.

Here’s the deal with Mickelson right now: He’s playing dynamite golf. He’s gone ‘W’ at Augusta, 2nd at Quail Hollow, and then was a Sunday contender at Sawgrass. His short game betrayed him on Sunday, but it happens.

Not like Phil’s sweating it. Afterwards, he chatted with longtime golf scribe Melanie Hauser about the famous designer Tom Ford designing his slacks. He signed autographs with a smile. He planed on winging it back to his family in San Diego, eyeing a return to golf at Colonial, and he would be doing all this knowing he now has his East Coast burger run down pat after bragging about eating at ‘Five Guys’ burger joint every day in the week at the Players Championship.

That’s the kind of stuff that will drive Tiger even more insane. Tiger spent the past decade measuring soy milk shots into smoothies, while Phil was rolling through Krispy Kreme drive-thrus. Now, as Tiger goes to the doctor for an all-telling MRI, Mickelson wings it home burping up ‘Five Guys’ with a satisfied smile.

Watch out, summertime. Lefty is just getting warmed up.

Broadcast moment of the week

“Man, I just hope he sorts out his swing, especially the long swing. His irons are not too bad, folks. But any long shots, he’s hitting pop ups, pulls, cuts, pushes … He’ll get it sorted out, a guy with that kind of talent. But he’s going to have to have a sort of new mindset as to what he wants to do with the golf swing, I believe.” – Johnny Miller, NBC, on Tiger’s woes.

Miller did not seem overly concerned about Tiger’s injury, but did seem overly concerned with Tiger’s golf swing. How could he not be?

Unbelievably, Tiger was among the worst in the field in driving distance at Sawgrass.

Ponder that. I might as well tell you that Phil Mickelson ate the fewest calories of any player in the field all week.

Tiger will take the next three off – San Antonio, Byron Nelson, Colonial – before his next huge test: Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial.

A Tiger arrival at Jack’s Muirfield will be imbued with meaning, with all sorts of questions as to whether or not Tiger’s journey to pass Jack on the all-time major championships list has hit a ‘Do Not Pass Go/Do Not Collect $200’ moment.

That is, if he even makes it to the Memorial. Watching Tiger disappear in that SUV, we don’t even know. That, for Tiger, is the scariest part.

Mulligan of the week

By now, you’ve noticed the year Robert Allenby is having. The formula goes like this: ball-strike with the best of them, contend late, then fade when your putter balks at key moments.

If that sounds frustrating, don’t feel too bad. Allenby’s four top-10s this year have netted him $2.3 million by Mother’s Day, which is nice work if you can get it. He’s sixth on the money list, and has the highest total of any player without a win.

At Honolulu in January, he had a putt to force a playoff … and missed. On Sunday at Sawgrass, he had putts on 16 and 17 that could have forced playoffs … and missed.

The putt on 17 was particularly cruel, as if the ball peered into the cup before deciding: “Naw, not today. I’ll just hang out here on the edge.”

Allenby declared the ball’s action “rude.”

I say it’s worthy of a second try. So let’s run out to 17, put that ball down on the green again and … give that man a mulligan!

Where do we go from here?

To San Antonio! Home of the obscure PGA Tour stop!

I don’t want to say the field lacks star power, but if you attached a power cord to the entry list, you could light a 40-watt nightlight by a toddler’s crib.

But Ernie Els will be there – his first trip to San Antone – which counts for something. And Sergio will be there, too.

Wait. Does Sergio even count anymore?

Let’s just say the results of Tiger’s MRI may be the big news of the week.