Tiny Tim Comes up Big

By: Jay Flemma

God bless us every one, a nice guy finished first.

Tiny Tim Clark, whose "legs are too short so I use my head," as he once said at a U.S. Open, won the arguably "fifth major," as his 5-under 67 captured the Players Championship by a shot over Robert Allenby. Third-round leader Lee Westwood closed with a dreary 74, allowing Clark, who fired a blistering 11-under aggregate of 133 over the weekend, to snatch the title. Sadly, Westwood has also faltered in final rounds at all four majors as well as the Players.

"I'm over the moon!" Clark said, beaming. "I just tried to sort of channel what I did (in Saturday's third round) . . . and have the same sort of confidence and sort of trust in what I was doing, and I was able to do that."

[As an aside, a sportswriter loves a guy who tells you he's "over the moon!" Rocco Mediate couldn't have given us a better sound bite!]

Humble yet colorful Clark also resembled another chatty, charming and pint-sized winner of the Players: Fred Funk. Like Funk, Clark is a tinkerer, a perfectionist with his swing, and it was a recent epiphany in his alignment that ended a season-long slump.

"I had the last two weeks off, and I didn't even hit golf balls, I didn't practice. I was playing so badly, I put the clubs away, and I just knew I needed to get away," he admits candidly. "I think the Saturday before coming out here, I hit some golf balls just to see if everything felt okay, and I changed something in my setup, and it just felt good. And I knew coming in here that my game would be good because I had the needed rest. And I think I just found something that clicked."

A well-rested, newly-inspired Clark shredded Pete Dye's "Waterpark-by-the-Bayou" like a gator chomping its dinner or, more to Clark's size, a piranha. He hit the tight fairways of Sawgrass with laser-like precision, and that's the key to contending at the Stadium Course. Sooner or later, when trying to recover from the rough you'll hit the chamber with the bullet. But Clark was rarely out of position all week.

"This is probably one of the best driving weeks I've had in a long time," Clark admitted. "I have to play perfect. I have to hit fairways. If I miss a fairway here, I'm in trouble. I guess a big part of why I've won this week is the way I drove the ball."

But the Stadium Course rewards the smartest golfer, not the strongest, and though Clark wasn't long off the tee, he credited his accuracy with getting him in position to win.

"When I was in the rough, only a couple of times the first few days, be it if I had 100 yards or 200 yards, it was almost impossible. I was getting fliers, and I guess that's a good thing. This groove change is in there to do exactly that. It's a good thing for a guy like me."

That's an astute observation about the effect of the groove change on the field: Clark believes it has and will continue to bring back greater importance to driving accuracy. That means more players will be back in the mix on Sunday. A look at the leaderboard this past weekend revealed a wide spectrum of foreign players and Americans, long-hitters and short. We may see a roll-back from the days where bomb-and-gougers dominated over the shorter shot-shapers.

Moreover, Sawgrass, like Harbour Town, rewards shot-makers and great short-game masters. It plays like a U.S. Open from tee to green (narrow, penal targets), but plays and scores like a Masters because of its green complexes and routing (par 72 with short par-5s and curvaceous greens). As a result, you've seen Stephen Ames, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia and Funk join Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, Ray Floyd and Tiger Woods in the Circle of Champions.

Indeed, Clark also credited his hot putter to the same alignment change that helped him off the tee. "What I did in my golf swing, I did the same thing with my putter. I got a little bit more upright with the club in my golf swing and in the putter, and I just somehow got some confidence," he explained. "It's just amazing when you feel like that what you can do. Another huge thing was the way I read the greens. I just felt like every read was spot-on, no matter what kind of putt I had, I felt like I was reading the greens. I guess that gives you a lot of confidence. I've never felt like that on the greens, ever."

"That's why golf is great because little guys like he and I can win," cheered golf fan Mike Risucci, who stands the same 5'7" as Clark. "He looks like a loveable leprechaun. It inspires little guys like me to practice harder because it can and will pay off against guys in bigger spikes."

Clark joins a short list of little guys who stood tall among the trees; 5'4" Ian Woosnam won a green jacket and would have hoisted a Claret Jug had his caddie remembered not to leave a 15th club in his bag during the final round of the 2001 British Open; 5'6" Jeff Sluman won a PGA Championship at mighty Oak Hill. And even Tom Watson and Gary Player, who each won eight majors between them, stand only 5'8 and 5'7", respectively.

Now, after experiencing several near-wins since he joined the Tour in 2001, Clark has bagged his first victory in the PGA Tour's flagship event. He has won three times on the European Tour, including twice in his native national championship, the South African Open, also won by countrymen Ernie Els and Retief Goosen.

"Ernie and Retief are guys I looked up to before coming out here and still guys I look up to," he concedes. "Obviously, what Trevor has done winning the Masters was a huge thing for South African golf. To be quite honest, I never considered myself in that league."

Still, after finishing third in the 2003 PGA Championship and having a few close calls at the Masters and U.S. Open, Clark may be ready to finally close out a major victory.

"I think at the end of the day, these are tournaments that you do judge your career on, the Players Championship and majors," he concludes. "If I go on and win some majors, that will probably define my career. If I win eight or nine Tour events, it's not going to probably change me a whole lot. I'll drive nicer cars, though."

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.

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