Originally created 03/31/97

Elkington gives Players performance for the books

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - Few players have destroyed a field this good by as much as Steve Elkington did this week at the Players Championship.

Elkington has won big tournaments before, including the 1995 PGA and the Players Championship in 1991. But this was a performance for the history books.

"I basically blew away the best field we've ever had," Elkington said Sunday after closing with a 69 for a 16-under-par 272 and a tournament record seven-stroke victory over Scott Hoch.

"And I did it in good fashion," he said after lapping the only field in history to have all of the top-50 players in the world. "I was in the lead the whole way."

The Stadium Course on the TPC at Sawgrass, devilish wind and the best golfers in the world were simply no match for Elkington.

Placing iron shots in perfect spots and putting with a precision usually only dreamed of when rolling balls on a carpet at home, Elkington started the final round with a two-stroke lead over Hoch. He built it masterfully on a gusty day when the course played the most difficult it had all week.

When the last putt had fallen and long after the final wind-blown ball had found the water or buried in the tangled rough, Elkington had led the tournament from wire to wire to win $630,000.

He closed as brilliantly as he played all week, chipping in for a birdie on No. 18 - one of only seven birdies on the hole all day.

Hoch, who finished with a 74, made a clutch birdie putt on No. 17 to finish alone at 279 and get $378,000 second-place money. Loren Roberts closed with a 69 to finish third at 280.

"I saw a fine player, if not a great player, out there today," Hoch said after going head-to-head with Elkington. "The big thing is he made all his putts."

The victory also earned Elkington a 10-year exemption on the PGA Tour.

"I really can't explain what got into me here," Elkington said after using only 24 putts in the final round and 105 for the tournament - the best in the field.

"I made every putt, really, I had to make inside 10 feet," he said. In the final round he made seven par putts in the 4-foot to 10-foot range.

"I didn't sleep very well last night and it was hard waiting for that 2 o'clock tee time," Elkington said. "I sat in my room and putted," he said with a sly grin. "I putted for three hours."

Then he went out and putted for four hours in a dream-like way.

Elkington joins Jack Nicklaus and Fred Couples as the only multiple winners of the Players Championship. He also joined Mark O'Meara as two-time winners on the PGA Tour this year. Elkington won at Doral three weeks ago.

"I think it's harder to win now, because you realize the importance of it," Elkington said, comparing this victory to 1991. "And it was such a great field."

Elkington shot in the 60s for the fourth consecutive round on a day in which the Stadium Course finally acted its firm, wind-swept self. The course played to a 74.9 average and no one shot lower than Elkington's 69.

"I think this is the way they wanted it to play all week," Elkington said.

Roberts, Fred Couples and Craig Parry were the only others to match Elkington's final-round score.

Elkington did what needs to be done when taking a lead into the final round - he made no mistakes, starting with seven consecutive pars. Hoch, meanwhile, had a double bogey and two bogeys in the first seven holes, letting Elkington get out to a five-stroke lead.

From then on it was just cruise control for the sweet-swinging Australian.

Elkington's only bogey came on No. 11 when he needed two strokes to get out of the sand. He got that back with a birdie on No. 13 and a gorgeous birdie on No. 14 when his 8-iron from 155 yards started at the safe right side of the green, drew back to the flag and ended 8 feet away.

He saved par on the 15th with an 8-foot putt right into the center of the hole and then curled in a 10-footer for par on the next hole.

Putting is always the key for Elkington, one of the best iron players in the game, but only 88th in putting last year. He had the touch on the Stadium Course greens, however, averaging slightly over 26 putts per round.

"When he gets his putter going, he can shoot some low scores and he's not going to back off," Roberts said about Elkington.

Faxon and Roberts were the only players to make a run at Elkington. Both got to nine under par through 14 holes, edging within four strokes of Elkington - no one got closer than that on the back nine - but both made bogeys on No. 15 to lose their momentum.

"I didn't look at a scoreboard until I made bogey at 15," Roberts said. "Then I saw where I was. The last few holes, I was just playing for second place."

Faxon finished fourth at 281.

The seven-stroke victory was a record for the Players Championship, breaking the five-stroke margin by Nick Price over Bernhard Langer in 1993.

Couples, the defending champion, finished at 285, but made a hole-in-one on the island-green 17th hole. Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods played head-to-head for the first time and Faldo shot a 72 to finish at 288 while Woods shot a 73 for a 289.

Greg Norman, playing for only the second time on the PGA Tour this year, closed with a 79 for a 294.

AP-CS-03-30-97 2002EST


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