PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Alex Cejka began the final round of The Players Championship with the largest 54-hole lead in the tournament’s 36-year history.
It was gone in about an hour.
Cejka was 5 over through his first six holes Sunday, erasing his five-stroke lead and leaving him in a free-fall from atop the leaderboard.
He never got it turned around, either.
Cejka shot a 7-over 79 and finished eight strokes behind winner Henrik Stenson. Cejka finished at 4 under in a five-way tie for ninth.
“It was one of these days where nothing is going your way,” Cejka said.
His collapse started with his first tee shot. Playing alongside world No. 1 Tiger Woods and in front of some of the largest galleries of his career, the Czechoslovakia-born player pulled his drive into the left rough. His approach shot rolled through the green, then his delicate chip shot ended up 25 feet past the pin.
He two-putted from there, but it turned out to be a sign of things to come on the treacherous Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.
His second shot on the par-4 fourth landed in the water in front of the green. He came up well short of the hole with his next shot and two-putted for double bogey.
With Ben Crane starting his round with consecutive birdies that got him to 8 under, Cejka’s big lead was gone in just four holes.
Cejka kept fading from contention, too.
He made three more bogeys on the front nine, yanking tee shots left on Nos. 5, 6 and 8 that made it considerably tougher to find the green. It must have been a strange feeling for someone who led the field in driving accuracy the first three days.
His precision off the tee helped him card 17 birdies in the first three rounds. On Sunday, though, he found trouble all over the course. Maybe it was the pressure of going for his first PGA Tour victory. Maybe it was all the extra attention from the large crowds following the final pairing. Maybe it playing with Woods.
“There was a little bit of pressure, but I wasn’t nervous at all,” Cejka said. “I was trying to do my thing. But it’s just a tough golf course. If I had a little bit better start. If I don’t make the double bogey on 4, it looks totally different. That’s sometimes golf.”
Even though Cejka was quick to point out Saturday that he beat Woods in their only round together on tour — the final 18 holes of the 1996 British Open — it also came when Woods was a 20-year-old amateur and without a major championship at stake (Cejka shot 67 and finished tied for 11th).
Cejka even planned to wear a red shirt Sunday, much like Woods does. But even that went awry. Cejka thought he had packed one, but when he dug through his suitcase, all he had left was an all-black ensemble that could have been a little uncomfortable in 90-degree weather.
“You’ve got to suffer a little bit out there,” he said before the round.
Cejka briefly ended his suffering with a birdie at the par-4 10th — his approach shot stopped about 5 feet from the pin — but he followed with consecutive bogeys on Nos. 12 and 13.
Cejka, who needed an epidural to restore feeling in his right arm about a week ago, must have felt like having another one to numb the pain.
“It could have been better, should have been better,” he said. “But it’s OK. I’m playing better, and it shows a little bit. Sometimes you’ve got to knock at the door a couple of times before you open it.”