After a shank, Ian Poulter digs deep for spectacular finish

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- To even say the word borders on blasphemy. It is one that golfers avoid at all costs, a phobia borne of superstition. Nobody wants to utter the five-letter description of a certain golf shot for fear of it infiltrating their system.

And so it was that the most shocking swing that occurred on the closing holes of the Players Championship on Sunday was Ian Poulter's 72nd-hole shank.

"Oh, it was a full one,'' he said. "Yeah, it was a lovely one. It was a shank. You'd like me to spell it for you?''

The word conjures the heebie-jeebies and it happened to the Englishman at the most inopportune time as he was attempting to put what little pressure he could on the unflappable eventual champion Si Woo Kim.

Poulter needed a birdie on the final hole to make it interesting and instead his 6-iron second shot was one of those infamous hosel rockets, an ugly-looking trajectory into the trees that came to rest in an unplayable lie. (By definition, a shank occurs when the ball is struck on the inside portion of the clubface, also hitting the rounded hosel.)

The fact that after a drop Poulter somehow hit it to tap-in range for a bogey only added to the weirdness of it all.

"It was one of the worst shots you'll ever see to a pretty good one,'' Poulter said.

It meant that Poulter managed a very meaningful tie for second place, likely locking up his PGA Tour card for the 2017-18 season, a different kind of drama that has played out over the past several weeks.

But on Sunday, the fireworks were missing on what is typically a volatile back nine. The cauldron that is the 16th, 17th and 18th holes at the TPC Sawgrass turned tame, save for the theatrics of Rafa Cabrera Bello's albatross.

The Spaniard was out of contention, but he hit the shot of the day at the par-5 16th. After a 337-yard drive to the intermediate rough, he had just an 8-iron left from 181 yards, his ball landing on the front of the green and tracking into the hole for the rarest of birds.

Cabrera Bello, who tied for fourth, was so excited that he inadvertently threw his club in the water.

"I just wanted to throw it high in the sky, middle of the fairway, and I don't know -- I missed the fairway,'' he said. "It went in the water. Luckily I was able to fish it out after.''

And there was your back-nine excitement for the day.

Kim played the final nine holes in 36, Poulter in 37, Louis Oosthuizen in 35, Cabrera Bello in 33 and Kyle Stanley in 37. So the top five players in the tournament managed to combine to go 2 under with the help of an albatross.

J.B. Holmes, the 54-hole co-leader along with Stanley, did managed to make a mess of the closing holes by going 8-6 (7 over par) to shoot 84, if you are into that kind of morbid enjoyment.

But as far as the outcome being decided, it was a day of attrition, with Kim's 69 not having to withstand any kind of onslaught.

"It's just the way this course is now with this kind of grass and also the wind being a big factor the last couple days,'' said Adam Scott, who tied for sixth. "Mid-60s in these conditions is an unbelievable score. Unless it's calm, you're not going to see those really low, low rounds around here the way it is at the moment.

"In the end, I survived I guess.''

There were just seven scores in the 60s on Sunday, the lowest a 68. The fact that Kim, just 21, managed a 69 and didn't make a bogey is testament to his skills and resolve under such pressure.

"He played like someone that was doing it for five or six years like it was just another round of golf,'' said Oosthuizen, who played with Kim. "It just shows you how good a player he is and how cool and calm he is and never once did he look flustered at all.''

Poulter, 41, might marvel at that given his own background. Unlike Kim, who made it through the PGA Tour's Qualifying Tournament at age 17 and captured his first tour title last year, Poulter was still in the pro shop at the same stage.

He turned pro at age 19 but was folding sweaters in the Chestfield Downs Golf Club, playing off a 4-handicap, before mustering enough resolve to make it as a touring pro. He's since won 12 times on the European Tour (twice on the PGA Tour) and broken American hearts at the Ryder Cup.

A foot injury that led to surgery knocked him out for most of last season and necessitated he play the PGA Tour on a major medical extension, whose criteria he seemingly failed to meet three weeks ago following the Valero Texas Open.

That meant Poulter was not exempt to play the rest of this season -- before an accounting error noted by fellow tour player Brian Gay led to the PGA Tour realizing that, indeed, Poulter did have enough FedEx Cup points to qualify for the rest of the season.

The 270 points (not to mention the $924,000) he earned on Sunday all but assure he will finish among the top 125 (he's now 58th) and will retain his status for next year. He also jumps into the top 70 in the world.

"I think I've played with less pressure, I've played probably with a little smile on my face,'' Poulter said. "It's been a good week. It's time to start filling the positive thoughts back in my head and start enjoying golf again. It's been tough. For that to all turn around the way it has and for me to be sitting here in a slightly different situation, it's pleasing.''

That's a lot different than exciting, but for Kim and Poulter, that wasn't necessary on Sunday.