Though the tournament seems to reject golf's major fixtures as insistently as it hopes to become one itself, The Players Championship had the good luck on Sunday to be won by the year's best player to date, Mark McCumber. With a 15-under-par 65-72-67-69-273, McCumber was four strokes better than second-place Mike Reid and broke Calvin Peete's three-year-old tournament record by a stroke. What this year's edition of golf's fifth most significant event—formerly the Tournament Players Championship—may have lacked in head-to-head drama, it made up for by spotlighting a talented veteran just coming into his own.
"I think this is a new phase for me," said the 36-year-old McCumber, who made the Players his sixth, and by far biggest, victory in an 11-year career. It was worth $225,000 and a 10-year exemption on the PGA Tour. With impressive precision McCumber wove his way over and between the potential disasters built into the Tournament Players Club stadium course in Ponte Vedra, Fla., leaving power players such as Greg Norman and Payne Stewart in his wake.
McCumber is now the Tour's top money winner for 1988, with $368,438, as well as its leader in greens hit in regulation (.763) and holes played under par (.268). Remarkably, of his 23 rounds this year, only one, a 73 at the Honda Classic three weeks ago, has been over par. His worst finish in '88 has been a tie for 14th at the Andy Williams Open. He has made 23 straight cuts, going back to the Memorial Tournament in May 1987.
And now McCumber has proved that he can handle the climactic moments of an important championship. At the 1986 U.S. Open he led midway through the final round but could not hold on and finished tied for eighth. At last year's PGA he led with four to play and couldn't bring it home. But in 32 holes on Sunday, nearly a double round because of Saturday's storms, McCumber played with complete control on a course softened by heavy rain. Using his conservative left-to-right fade, he hit all but three greens in regulation. On his 63rd hole, the 9th, he birdied to take a two-stroke lead over David Frost, who eventually finished third. McCumber slammed the door with birdies on the 11th and 12th holes.
Meanwhile, Norman, Stewart, Dan Pohl and Joey Sindelar, all within four strokes of McCumber when the final round began, failed to mount a challenge in the soggy, more lenient conditions that seemed to favor such long hitters. In fact, it wasn't a great week for many of golf's thoroughbreds. On Thursday, Jay Haas, the year's leading money winner coming into The Players, was disqualified for playing with an illegal club. He had bent his putter in anger after missing a short birdie putt on the 9th hole and then continued to use the damaged club, a no-no. The next morning, Curtis Strange, last year's top money winner, disqualified himself after he realized he had signed for a 74 the first day instead of the 75 he actually shot. And on Friday afternoon Davis Love III banged his putter on the ground after a bogey and was disqualified for breaking the same rule that Haas had.
The 36-hole cut, two-over-par 146, trimmed other big names. All four of last year's champions in the majors—Larry Mize, Scott Simpson, Nick Faldo and Larry Nelson—missed the cut. So did Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. Five of six members of last year's victorious European Ryder Cup team were sent packing: defending TPC champion Sandy Lyle, Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam, Ken Brown and Faldo. Only Bernhard Langer, who finished 16th with a six-under 282, survived. Is there any doubt what the permanent site for the Ryder Cup should be whenever the U.S. is host?
For that matter, McCumber had never fared too well at the Players Club, surprising for someone who grew up in nearby Jacksonville and now lives close to the course. In six tries he had made the cut only twice; his best finish was 12th last year. One problem may have been that four generations of McCumbers live in the greater Jacksonville area, and all of them, along with scores of friends, expect Mark to provide passes to the tournament. "Very stressful," says McCumber.
Then again, the fast-talking McCumber is a very excitable individual. "When I was 24, I was jumpy, an 11 on a scale of 10," says McCumber, whose nerves failed him in the Tour's qualifying school six times before he finally made the grade in 1978. "Now I'm about an eight."
One reason McCumber has been more relaxed lately is the presence of caddie Chico Fernandez. Since the 55-year-old, Cuban-born Fernandez began working for him after last year's U.S. Open, McCumber has been on the best streak of his life. At The Players, Fernandez provided back rubs and neck massages to relax him. As McCumber would prepare to hit a shot, Fernandez would tell him, "No rushing. Head still. Please do so." Then McCumber would answer with a mantralike, "I'll try, Chico."
The routine worked on McCumber's last shot on Thursday—a 112-yard sand wedge on the 9th hole (his 18th) that hit short of the pin, then bounced 10 feet beyond it and danced back into the cup for an eagle 3. That gave him a 65 and the lead. McCumber also kept his wits about him through 38-mph winds on Friday, hitting only nine greens but battling for a 72 that left him a stroke behind second-round leader Stewart. On Saturday, McCumber played only four holes before play was suspended because of a lightning storm and a torrential downpour, but his final shot was a 25-foot birdie putt. Then, on Sunday, to augment Chico's rubdowns and slowdowns, McCumber remembered what his 12-year-old daughter, Addie, once told him before she tearfully got on a roller coaster: "Daddy, if you're not scared, you're not having fun."
McCumber marched up the 72nd fairway with a five-stroke lead, and tears welled up in his eyes when he looked into the gallery and recognized friends, some of whose lawns he had mowed years ago while working in the family landscaping business. After tapping in for a bogey to break Peete's record, the 5'8" McCumber lifted Fernandez's 195 pounds in a bear hug, then was engulfed by a clan of McCumbers.
Every pro loves to win in front of family and friends, but as sweet as this victory was, McCumber has bigger plans for the future. "The one I most want to win," he said, "is the next one I'm playing in." That one is the Masters.