By Doug Ferguson, AP Golf Writer
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Tim Clark no longer has to hear about being the best player to have never won on the PGA Tour. He settled that Sunday by beating the best field in golf.
Clark played the final 26 holes without a bogey and made an 8-foot par on the final hole for a 5-under 67 to win The Players Championship with a record 36-hole comeback at TPC Sawgrass.
"I did all I could there," said Clark, a 34-year-old South African. "That's as good as I could have played."
He needed every shot on a course with greens that were crisp, firm and pale yellow. The average score was nearly three shots higher than it was for the previous three rounds.
Clark, seven shots behind going into the weekend, made four straight birdies around the turn to take the lead, and no one could catch him. Robert Allenby had the best chance, but an 18-foot eagle putt on the 16th and a 12-foot birdie try on the island-green 17th came within a fraction of an inch from going in.
Clark became only the second player to make The Players Championship his first PGA Tour victory. He had gone more than eight years and 204 tournament with nothing more to show than eight runner-up finishes.
Tiger Woods managed to create a buzz without even being there most of the day. He withdrew on the seventh hole because of a neck injury that he fears might be from a bulging disk. Woods said his neck has been bothering him since before the Masters.
"I've been playing through it," Woods said. "I can't play through it anymore."
Phil Mickelson could have moved to No. 1 in the world with a victory, but the Masters champion never gave himself a good chance. He made bogey on three of his opening six holes, closed with a 74 and tied for 17th.
Clark won for the fourth time worldwide, yet this was his finest performance. The Players Championship not only is the richest tournament in golf with a $9.5 million purse, it features the strongest and deepest field all year.
Clark won with a 66-67 weekend in which he made only one bogey -- the 10th hole on Saturday. It was the best weekend on the treacherous Stadium Course since Fred Couples shot 132 to win in 1996. The 36-hole comeback topped the record of six that Woods set when he won in 2001.
Clark finished at 16-under 272 and earned $1.71 million.
Allenby, winless on the PGA Tour since 2001, closed with a 70 to finish a stroke back. He needed a birdie on the final hole to force a playoff, but missed the green to the right and his 50-foot birdie attempt never had a chance to go in. He earned $1,026,000 as a consolation prize for his second runner-up finish this year.
U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover shot 31 on the back, including a 50-foot birdie on the 17th, and wound up third at 14-under 274.
Lee Westwood of England had the 54-hole lead, just as he did at the Masters last month, and couldn't hold on. He made one clutch par after another, including a 50-footer on the 15th hole to stay in the game, but his hopes ended with a tee shot into the water on the 17th to make double bogey.
"I just didn't play well enough today," Westwood said.
Westwood shot 39 on the back and fell into a tie for fourth with Davis Love III, whose 68 was one of only two rounds in the 60s. The other belonged to Clark, and it was a beauty.
Clark was three shots behind until knocking in an 18-foot birdie putt on the par-5 ninth, and taking that momentum to the back nine. First came a 6-foot birdie on the 10th, then a tough shot out of the back bunker to 5 feet for birdie on the par-5 11th. He made it four straight birdies with an 18-foot birdie on the 12th to take the lead.
Then came a series of pars, none bigger than the 8-foot putt on the final hole while holding a two-shot lead over Allenby and Westwood, who were three holes behind him on the course.
Clark gritted his teeth and slammed his fist in celebration, a familiar seen at The Players Championship. It was the same kind of putt that Adam Scott made to win in 2004, Fred Funk a year later, and Sergio Garcia in 2008 to force a playoff.
Considering it was his first victory on the PGA Tour, it was all the more meaningful for Clark.
"You wouldn't find one guy in the locker room that wouldn't say he was going to win soon, and he deserves it," Glover said.
For the first time in his career, Woods went consecutive weeks without making official money. After missing the cut by eight shots last week at Quail Hollow for only the sixth time in his career, Woods was 10 shots behind and already 2 over for the round when he stopped.
He summoned an official for a cart and was whisked away, spending nearly 40 minutes in the physical therapy trailer.
Woods spoke briefly in front of his locker, saying he was not sure how the injury occurred but that he would have an MRI this week. He did not know when he would return.
Mickelson, who started five shots behind, was just short of the par-5 second hole in two shots until going over the green and taking bogey. He bogeyed the next hole and was never in the picture.
"The course conditions were very difficult It was exactly what I needed to be able to try to make a run at the leaders," Mickelson said. "Unfortunately, I didn't take advantage of it."