JERSEY CITY, N.J. – In a final hour of surprises, Heath Slocum delivered the biggest one Sunday at The Barclays.
One week after Slocum wondered if he would even make it to the PGA Tour Playoffs, he finished off a compelling afternoon at Liberty National by making a 20-foot par putt on the 18th hole for a one-shot victory over Tiger Woods and a cast of stars.
Woods was one shot behind when he fired a 6-iron from 189 yards into 7 feet on the final hole, adding to his collection of clutch shots. Typical of his week, however, Woods missed the putt and shot 67, then had to wait to see if there would be a playoff.
Slocum and Steve Stricker, tied for the lead, both hit into fairway bunkers and couldn’t reach the green. Slocum raised both arms in the air when his par putt broke gently back to the left and disappeared into the cup.
Stricker had a 10-foot par putt to force a playoff, and cringed when it caught the left lip. He closed with a 69.
Ernie Els (66) and Padraig Harrington (67) also finished one shot behind Slocum. Els had his clubs loaded into the trunk of his car when he heard the cheers for Woods’ approach to the 18th green.
Then came a groan when Woods missed, followed by news that Slocum and Stricker were in trouble off the tee. Before long, Els was on the driving range warming up for a possible five-way playoff that never happened when Slocum made the biggest putt of his career.
In the third year of these playoffs, the FedEx Cup finally has a winner that resembles a real underdog.
He qualified for these playoffs with two points to spare – he was No. 124 out of 125 players who advance to this postseason bonanza. His victory moves him to No. 3 in the standings, assuring him a spot in the Tour Championship and a shot at the $10 million prize.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Slocum said. “I was sweating it out last week. I didn’t even know if I’d be here. I came in here with the attitude that I had nothing to lose.”
He turned into a huge winner.
Slocum, who came into The Barclays at No. 197 in the world ranking, finished at 9-under 275 and earned $1.35 million for his third career PGA Tour victory, and first in four years. His other two victories were opposite-field events, when the best players in the world were competing elsewhere.
He faced an All-Star cast across the Hudson River from Manhattan, and Slocum shined.
The 35-year-old from the Florida Panhandle knocked in a 25-foot birdie at No. 2, the toughest par 3 at Liberty National, then surged into a share of the lead by holing out from 159 yards for eagle on No. 5. He was steady the rest of the way, especially on the 18th.
“Anybody here in this field has the potential to win the tournament,” Stricker said. “Heath is a very steady player. He’s a very good player. I don’t think we should be surprised that he won.”
The surprise came from Woods.
The world’s No. 1 player was lurking most of the day, unable to get any traction while missing so many putts. A 3-footer for par rimmed around the cup at No. 4, and he failed to convert birdie putts on two of the par 5s from inside 10 feet.
Down the stretch, everything changed.
He made a 10-foot birdie on the 14th, saved par with a 15-foot putt on the next hole, and got in range with pitch to 2 feet for birdie on the 16th. And with everything riding on one shot, he nailed his 6-iron to birdie range.
Any other week, any other course, Woods making that putt was practically a given.
This one never had a chance.
“We misread it by almost a cup,” Woods said. “That’s frustrating when you misread a putt that bad. Stricker did the same thing. It happens. Not too many golf courses that you misread putts that badly. This golf course is one of them.”
Els played bogey-free and pulled into a tie for the lead with a birdie on the par-3 14th. He might have been hurt using a new driver, after discovering a crack in his other one on Saturday. Els felt his tee shots were getting away to the right, and he didn’t want to risk such a mistake on the par-4 16th, which played only 287 yards in the final round. He laid up and made par.
“From where I’ve come from, where my game has been, where my confidence has been, this is moving in the right direction,” said Els, who has not won since March 2008 at the Honda Classic.
Harrington continued his solid form, getting into the mix for the third straight tournament. He finished with four birdies over the final seven holes, making a long birdie at the 18th.
The final round featured endless possibilities, except for the guys atop the leaderboard.
Steve Marino and Paul Goydos, tied for the lead at 9 under to start the final round, and Webb Simpson and Fredrik Jacobson, both two shots behind, combined to go 11-over par. Marino shot 77, while Goydos made only one birdie in his round of 75.
Woods now has won twice and was runner-up twice in his four tournaments since missing the cut at the British Open. Still, the last two tournaments were ones that got away from him – losing a two-shot lead to unheralded Y.E. Yang in the PGA Championship, and failing to deliver the clutch putt on 18 that he always seems to make.
“To miss as many putts as I did this week, to still have a last chance on the last green with a putt, it goes to show you how good I’m hitting it,” Woods said. “That’s a great sign. I just need to make a few more putts.”