2006: PGA - On the rebound

By Rex Hoggard

Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Count two champions among the throng of folks who marched onto TPC Sawgrass for a collective shiver last week. Straightforward Stephen Ames was the guy holding the Waterford doorstop in the fading light March 26. Alan Fine – the other half of the unlikely tale of triumph – had long bolted the

First Coast, but his words of wisdom lingered in the air like a 9-iron tee shot into the dainty-yet-daunting 17th.

Ames lived the fairy tale at The Players Championship’s March Swan Song, slaying giants on an unwelcoming landscape for his second career PGA Tour victory. His six-stroke walkover was a textbook example of mind over matter

that started with a team meeting among Ames, his caddie/brother Robert and Fine, a renowned sports psychologist who has been with Ames since the 2003 World Cup.

The message was clear: Keep it simple. Swing thoughts? “Basically, I have none,” Ames said, only half joking.

“(Fine) said, ‘You boys have to get away from numbers,’ ” Robert Ames said. “It’s hard for me, as a caddie, to give him a club, knowing it’s the wrong club, and still be supportive. But it really works.”

A textbook example of Fine’s “swing simple” philosophy crystallized late Sunday. Following

a door-opening double bogey at No. 10, Ames waited in the middle of the 11th fairway,

230 yards from the hole.

“Just have fun with the shot,” Robert Ames said to Stephen moments before the latter rifled

a 3-iron to 14 feet for, essentially, a tournament-clinching two-putt birdie.

Not sure what the finder’s fee is for clarity

of thought, but Fine deserves at least a taste of Ames’ $1.44 million haul for turning a focus-challenged Canadian, via Trinidad and Tobago, into Sergeant York. Fine’s mental magic is even more impressive considering that less than six weeks ago, Ames was something of a poster boy for battered Tour pros everywhere.

After an ill-advised comment about Tiger Woods’ driving inaccuracy before his first-round match against the World No. 1 at last month’s WGC-Match Play Championship, Ames became the answer to a painful trivia question when he fell 9 and 8. It was, by his own admission, a pummeling. A whipping that could haunt a player’s psyche for years.

Ames, however, is nothing if not a realist. After a 10-week offseason break his game was rusty. He also points out that Woods shot 29 on his first nine holes at La Costa, a juggernaut few could have weathered.

Moving on after his match-play mugging was easy. Getting over his wife’s 10-month battle

with lung cancer has been a much more meaningful hurdle.

“When I was playing the British Open last year, I’m standing over each golf shot going, ‘What am I doing with this golf ball?’ ” Ames said. “I had no thought what I wanted to do with it. I knew right there I was in a distant zone somewhere else.”

Jodi Ames was diagnosed in May 2005 and

had surgery to remove half of her ailing lung

the Monday after the British Open. She has undergone two tests since then that indicate the cancer is in remission.

“Once she had the operation, it sort of relieved him and he was able to concentrate on golf,” Robert Ames said.

Woods could relate to the feeling of helplessness that comes when a close relative battles an unseen and unrelenting disease. On the eve of The Players Championship, he flew to California to be with his ailing father, Earl, who is battling cancer.

“He’s fighting as hard as he can,” said Woods after his coast-to-coast 72 in Round 1. “It was good to see. At least he’s trying to hang in there, which is a very positive sign.”

Woods never seemed to recover from his emotional start, but he was about the only marquee player not to rotate into contention at the final Players to be contested in March. Next year, the Tour’s big bash moves to May and perhaps finally into the highly coveted yet much contrived fifth major category.

The players, not the Tour or the media, will ultimately decide the fifth major debate. But

for four days last week, the place had all the trappings of a grand gathering – cool, windy British Open weather, thick U.S. Open rough, slick Augusta National greens and, ultimately,

an unlikely champion, PGA style.

The 33rd edition of The Players also had more carnage than a low-budget B-flick.

Davis Love III was the first victim, stepping from the lead into the history books when he followed his opening-round 65 – which tied him with playing partner Jim Furyk for the early edge – with an 83 on Friday. The score earned Love the honor of becoming the first player in the history of the tournament to go from the front

of the pack to packing his bags when he missed the cut by four shots.

One by one, contenders large and small collapsed, marching off Pete Dye’s rough-covered cliffs like lemmings.

After steady opening rounds of 70-67, Adam Scott needed 45 strokes to make it to the turn

in Round 3. Arron Oberholser’s collapse came moments after Scott signed for his 82. Oberholser was one of eight players to hold a share of the lead Saturday, until a triple bogey-bogey finish sent him sliding into the middle-of-the-pack abyss.

“I made a bad club choice and one poor swing and it added up to 6-6,” said Oberholser, who played the unforgiving 17th and 18th holes in

8 over par on the weekend.

It didn’t take much to get sideways on a

juiced-up, water-deprived Stadium Course. Just ask Ernie Els, who made an early move at Ames on Sunday. Els played a flawless 13 holes in

5 under before stumbling home with a pair

of bogeys and a double at the 17th.

“I’m mentally bankrupt,” one shell-shocked player said as he headed for the TPC parking lot late Sunday. “I’ve never putted off of so many greens in my life.”

Despite the conditions, Ames was unflappable

– a rock amid a sea of battered and beaten competitors. For his efforts, he was rewarded with a five-year Tour exemption and a free pass to Augusta National.

Unfortunately, the latter falls in the second half of a two-week family vacation to Trinidad.

“I have no plans of playing at Augusta,” said Ames, who tied for 45th last year in his only Masters appearance. “My priorities have always been my family first. If it comes down to that, it’s probably going to be a two-week vacation.”

Do Masters invitations come with RSVP boxes?

Ames said he would discuss the possibility of playing Augusta National with his family, but added that it was important for him to be with his wife as she continues her recovery.

“She’s doing excellent now,” Ames said. “She’s at the stage now of her surgery where she walks up the stairs and she’s trying to catch her breath.”

After another crazy TPC weekend, so was everyone else.

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