PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Golf uncovered a Tiger tamer yesterday.
Hal Sutton repeated his Players Championship of 17 years ago, and with his 42nd birthday looming next month, he also became the oldest champion of the tournament.
Sutton took the lead with a first-round 69 and held it wire to wire, playing Hold That Tiger for the last 18 excruciating holes for a one-stroke victory over Tiger Woods. The last seven holes were completed yesterday morning after an overnight weather delay.
But Sutton, admittedly nervous, set his grim visage in place and made seven straight pars.
"I played good and kept my game plan in place all week, making sure I didn't beat myself," Sutton said, "but I knew it wasn't going to end without Tiger making a charge. He played great and lived up to his No. 1 ranking. It was nerve-racking to beat him."
Woods three-putted as the pair started their abbreviated finish by completing the 12th hole.
Sutton's lead thus stretched to four, but briefly, as Woods rebounded with a 5-foot birdie putt at the short 13th and cut it back to three.
The real charge exploded at the par-5 16th, where Sutton missed his only fairway and had to be content playing for par.
"You give him an open door and he rushes through it," Sutton said.
Woods whaled his 5-iron within 12 feet of the stick and ran down the eagle putt, making for a tense finish.
Sutton was equal to the task, as Woods missed birdie chips on the last two holes.
"I'm a little disappointed, but I made Hal work for it," said Woods, who has finished first or second in 10 of his past 11 tournaments. "It was a good battle, a lot of fun."
Both players shot final-round 71s, Sutton's for 10-under-par 278.
"This golf course asks everything from you," Sutton said. "It asks you to drive it straight, to know how far to hit each club, to have a good short game, and it asks you to have a lot of nerves. I don't know what else is required of a great golf course."
Nick Price, who completed his round Sunday, finished in a tie for third at 284. He was joined yesterday by Jeff Maggert, who finished off a 68, plus Scott Dunlap, Colin Montgomerie and Robert Damron, each with 70.
Money was of little consequence to Sutton or Woods, but it wasn't bad, either. Sutton pocketed $1,080,000 for the 12th victory of his 19-year career.
Woods, who has won 11 times in the past two seasons, won $648,000.
But for Sutton, the return to the Players winner's circle was validation for hanging in and working on his game despite an absence of victory from 1987 to 1994.
"I was just a gunslinger then," said Sutton, who won the Players and PGA championships in '83 and was regarded by some as the next Jack Nicklaus.
With arms like a blacksmith's, Sutton has always been a great ball-striker, but his short game was a rumor in the '80s. In recent years, his touch on the greens has improved. Sutton made $1.8 million on the PGA Tour in '98 and $2.1 million last year, and he was a hero in the Ryder Cup.
"I hit 17 greens in the last round, and I never wanted to three-putt, and I did that," Sutton said. "I really putted well all week."
Though the victory was rewarding, Sutton said the long, dark non-winning years didn't come flashing back.
"There was no way I could have done this in those years," he said. "It takes a lot of courage to play this course in itself, then when you have Tiger running rampant out there on it, too, it makes it that much more difficult. This is what golf is all about. This is why I started playing at 10 years old and stuck with it."
Off the course
The event is part of the four-tournament World Golf Championships, events that are sanctioned by the International Federation of PGA Tours. The first American Express Championship was held last year at Valderrama in Spain. This year's American Express Championship also will be played at Valderrama.
The World Golf Championship series also includes the Andersen Consulting Match Play Championships, the NEC Invitation and the EMC World Cup.