Originally created 03/27/06

Ames blows away toughest field in golf



PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - An embarrassing loss to Tiger Woods is in the past. A trip to the Masters might not be in his future. All that mattered to Stephen Ames was playing the best round of his life to overwhelm the best players in golf Sunday in The Players Championship.

A month after making fun of Woods, Ames won like him.

He hit impeccable iron shots to build a big lead on the treacherous TPC at Sawgrass, then let everyone collapse in a series of wrecks around him. When he had fired at his last flag, Ames had a 5-under 67 - the best round of a demanding final round - and won by six shots over two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen.

"This is big," Ames said. "This is characterized as the fifth major. I beat the top players in the world."

He finished at 14-under 274, earned $1.44 million from the richest purse on the PGA Tour, and earned an unlikely trip to the Masters in two weeks.

Whether he goes remains to be seen.

Ames' wife, Jodi, is recovering from lung cancer. His sons, ages 9 and 6, are starting their two-week spring break and Ames has a vacation planned in his native Trinidad.

"I had no plans of playing at Augusta," he said. "My priorities have always been family first. If it comes down to that, it's probably going to be a two-week vacation.... I'd rather go on vacation, to be truthful."

The way he played on a sun-baked afternoon on Sawgrass, he might be a force at the Masters.

It was the second-toughest Sunday at The Players Championship, yet Ames made it feel like a practice round. He showed no nerves and said he felt none. His 67 from the final group was the best score by two shots.

The only blip was a double bogey on the 10th hole, when mud on his ball caused his approach to plug into a bunker, and it took him two shots to get out. His lead was cut in half to two strokes, and with the terror of the back nine awaiting, it was set up for another dramatic finish.

Instead, Ames poured it on with magnificent shots, starting with a 3-iron into 15 feet on the par-5 11th to set up a two-putt birdie. Then came an 8-iron on the par-3 13th that caught the ridge and rolled to 2 feet for birdie. He took only 12 putts on the back nine, including a 25-footer for eagle from just off the green at No. 16.

"I think I did that this week, put myself in another gear," Ames said. "It was a matter of seeing the shot and hitting the shot and not worrying about it because... nobody was close to me to worry about it."

Ames has seen that kind of golf before.

He faced Woods in the first round of the Match Play Championship, and riled him by saying that anything could happen, "especially where he's hitting the ball." Woods turned it into the shortest match in 18-hole history, 9 and 8, a score that became Ames' nickname the last month.

No more.

He's now The Players champion, with a performance his peers won't soon forget.

"What am I going to do, sit down and cry about it?" Ames said of that loss. "He's the No. 1 player in the world, and he played exceptionally well for... was it nine or 10 holes? That was it."

Woods was never part of the equation. He twice made double bogey from the fairway and shot 75 to tie for 22nd, 15 shots out of the lead.

"That's golf," Woods said. "Each week is so different. Stephen didn't really play all that well when he played against me in the Match Play. The great thing about this game is it starts over the very next week."

Those who did have a chance to win The Players Championship didn't last long.

Ames played with Vijay Singh, who shot 41 on the front, didn't make a birdie until the 11th hole and finished with a 77.

In front of him was Sergio Garcia, whose three-putt bogey and double bogey into the water led to a 78, and Mike Weir, who hit into the water and three-putted on the same hole while shooting 79. Ernie Els got within three shots of the lead until he found water on the 16th and 17th holes and settled for a 71.

"It was pretty close at one stage, but he played awesome," Goosen said. "He ran away with it at the end. We all probably thought 9 under would be a good score."

Ames could have played it safe. Instead, he played without fear.

He made a 10-foot birdie putt on the 15th, where the hole was tucked on the left side. From the first cut of rough on the par-5 16th, he went after the flag and narrowly cleared a bunker by the lake to set up his eagle. The only conservative play came on the par-3 17th with the island green. Ames went for the middle of the green, found land, and two-putted for par.

With a six-shot lead playing the final hole, Ames lived up to his name.

He took dead aim.

"Oh, you just had to go at it, didn't you?" Robert Ames, his brother and caddie, teased him.

Colombian rookie Camilo Villegas, who got into the tournament when Chris DiMarco withdrew, nearly made it into the Masters. He closed with a 71 and finished in a four-way tie for third at 283 to earn $384,000. He moved up to 11th on the money list - only the top 10 are eligible for the Masters - coming up $94,971 short.

"I gave it my best, and it looks like it's not going to happen," Villegas said. "Hopefully, there will be plenty of Masters for me in the future."

Ames said he has no beef with the Masters - he tied for 45th in his debut last year - but had his heart set on spending two weeks with his family. His wife had half a lung removed in July after the British Open, but Ames said she is recovering well and can walk up a flight of stairs before stopping to catch her breath.

That was another area where he could relate with Woods, who left The Players Championship the day before it started to check on his cancer-stricken father in California.

"It's hard to focus and play golf. It's next to impossible," Ames said. "When I was playing the British Open last year, I'm standing over every shot going, 'What am I doing with this golf ball?' I was in a distant zone."

He was in another zone at Sawgrass, one that carried him to a six-shot victory and gave him a three-year exemption to the Masters, and a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour.