PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Si Woo Kim made Sunday at The Players Championship look like child’s play.
From a tough lie behind the green, in a bunker with not much room between him and the pin, or even standing on the 17th tee and staring at an island, the 21-year-old South Korean never flinched and never made worse than par.
Kim kept a clean card to the end for a 3-under 69 to become the youngest champion in the 44-year history of the biggest tournament this side of the majors.
“I feel like I’m still dreaming that I won this championship,” Kim said after his three-stroke victory.
On a windy afternoon at the TPC Sawgrass, where anything can go wrong without notice, Kim was the only player to go bogey-free in the final round that derailed everyone else in a hopeless pursuit of him.
His last hurdle was getting by the final two holes where not even his two-shot lead was safe — the island green at the par-3 17th and a closing hole with water all the way down the left side.
“I wasn’t nervous at all because I was leading,” he said. “I just focused on the middle of the green.”
He landed safely and two-putted from 45 feet, and then he smashed another drive down the middle of the 18th fairway.
The only drama at the end came from Ian Poulter, who was happy just to be here.
Two weeks ago, Poulter thought he had lost his PGA Tour card until officials realized a clerical oversight that restored his status and even gave him a spot in The Players Championship. He was the only player to seriously challenge Kim until he ran out of holes, and then it was a matter of finishing second.
Poulter shanked his second shot from the right rough on the 18th, and it bounced off hospitality tents, down a cart path and into a palmetto bush. He took a penalty drop, and then hit wedge over the trees and nearly holed it, tapping in for bogey.
He closed with a 71 and tied for second with Louis Oosthuizen, who shot 73.
“It was a big shock to the system to hit one of those nasty shanks when I’ve hit it as good as I have all week,” Poulter said. “But the fourth shot was pretty special — from one of the worst shots I’ve ever hit to one of the very best.”
The bogey on the 18th was only the second for Poulter over the final 46 of the tournament. As tough as the Players Stadium Course played, his best chance was waiting for Kim to make a mistake, just like so many other players. Remarkably, Kim never did.
“As good as he played yesterday, he’s obviously gone out there today and played even better,” Poulter said. “He’s gone clean out there today, which is extremely impressive under that pressure. ... You have to respect some good golf, and that’s exactly what he’s done.”
Oosthuizen, who fell out of the lead for good with a fairway bunker shot into the water for double bogey on No. 4, watched it all day playing alongside Kim.
“If you’re on your game and playing well, that the things you do,” Oosthuizen said. “You just don’t give shots away. If you can do that around this golf course, you can outscore everyone. And he played like someone that was doing it for five or six years, like it was just another round of golf. It just shows you how good a player he is and how cool and calm he is. Never once did he look flustered at all.”
The excitement, good and bad, came from everyone else.
Rafa Cabrera Bello of Spain hit 8-iron that bounded off the side of a bunker and into the cup for an albatross 2 on the par-5 16th. He followed that with a birdie on the 17th, and then holed a long par putt from just off the 18th green. That gave him a 70 and a tie for fourth with Kyle Stanley, a co-leader after 54 holes who shot 75.
The other co-leader was J.B. Holmes, and it was a horror show for the Kentuckian.
Holmes shot 40 on the front nine and still had hope until bogeys on the 14th and 15th holes. And then it turned ugly. He hit too shots into the water on the 17th and make a quintuple-bogey 8, then finished with a double bogey to close with an 84, the worst finish by a 54-hole leader at The Players.
Holmes wasn’t alone. Defending champion Jason Day closed with an 80, keeping very much in tact the streak of no winner ever repeating in the Players. Rickie Fowler, who won the year before, closed with a 79.
As for the winner? That was rarely in doubt for Kim, who finished at 10-under 278
Kim said he wasn’t nervous because of his victory last year in the Wyndham Championship, which gave him a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour. This victory comes with perks beyond the $1.89 million first prize. He gets a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour, and a three-year exemption to the Masters.
The previous youngest champion of The Players was Adam Scott, who was 23 when he won in 2005.
Just over four years ago, Kim came over to America to play the final version of PGA Tour’s qualifying school. He earned a card at age 17, but he could not become a PGA Tour member until he turned 18 the following June. That card effectively went to waste, and Kim spent the next two years on the developmental tour until earning his card back to the big leagues.
Now he’s here to stay for at least the next five years, and based on his game, probably much longer.