PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - Sunday at Sawgrass felt tougher on Sergio Garcia than what he faced last summer at the British Open, a playoff loss that seemed to define a career filled with more talent than trophies.

He was tormented by a suspect putter. He heard questions whether he could win a big one.

All that changed in the final hour of The Players Championship thanks to two clutch putts, a wedge that found safety on an island and a playoff victory that Garcia desperately needed.

The best player without a major got the next best thing, making a seven-foot par putt that put him in a playoff, then beating Paul Goydos on the notorious island-green 17th with a wedge into four feet and a putt he could afford to miss after Goydos hit into the water.

"It feels like a major, and it tests you like a major," Garcia said. "I'm so thrilled to be here standing with the trophy."

It was a long time coming.

Garcia was in the longest victory drought of his career, stretching over three years and 53 starts on the PGA Tour. Motivated by criticism of his putting, he rolled in one critical putt after another, none bigger than a slippery par putt on the final hole for a 1-under 71.

It put him in a playoff when Goydos missed a 15-foot par putt in the final group behind him.

Calgary's Stephen Ames, who won the tournament in 2006, finished fifth. Ames closed with a 72 to finish five shots back at even par 288.

The first playoff in 21 years at The Players didn't last long. Goydos, hitting first, watched helplessly as a gust caused his wedge to balloon into the cloudy skies and land with a splash a few feet in front of the green.

Garcia, with no margin for error, followed with a wedge that landed on the green, caught a slope and stopped four feet away. He missed the birdie putt, but it didn't matter.

Goydos wound up with a double bogey and a horrible coincidence.

There were 65 balls hit into the water during the tournament. Goydos was the first to deposit one in the opening round Thursday, and the last at the worst possible time in a sudden-death playoff.

For a guy with only two victories in his career, Goydos was abundantly gracious in defeat.

"Look at the shot Sergio hit in the playoff," Goydos said. "I got beat. I played good golf. That doesn't mean you win. There's no defence. I can't tackle the little guy. There's no knee-capping. You have to accept the guy beat me.

"They key is to have the lead with no holes to go."

Garcia and Goydos each finished at 5-under 283.

The 28-year-old Spaniard, whose seven PGA Tour victories are the most by players under age 30, earned US$1.71 million from the richest purse in golf and again enters the conversation as a major contender with the U.S. Open a month away.

"The goal is to keep getting better, and the only thing this tells me is to keep working hard and to believe in myself," Garcia said. "And when I do believe in myself, I think there's not a lot of guys out there that can beat me.

"I'm looking forward to keep going. I don't want to get stuck here."

The consolation for Goydos was $1.026 million for second place, more than he earned for winning the Sony Open last year. And he felt no shame losing to Garcia, whom he raved about earlier in the week as one of the top talents in the game.

"He's right there on the precipice of great things," Goydos said.

Jeff Quinney had a chance to join the playoff. He went bogey-free for 10 holes in gusts that topped 40 mph at times, but failed to save par from a bunker behind the 18th green and had to settle for a 70 and third place alone, one shot behind.

Garcia never needed a victory so badly.

He had a 10-foot putt to win the British Open at Carnoustie last summer, then lost in a playoff to Padraig Harrington. No club troubled him more than the putter, and this week on the TPC Sawgrass was no exception.

Garcia took 124 putts in regulation, 18 more than Goydos.

But he sure came up big in the final round, rolling in a collection of par putts that kept him in the hunt, birdie putts that challenged Goydos and a par on the 18th hole that made this victory possible.

Two of them stood out for the Spaniard.

One came on the par-3 17th in regulation, when Garcia lagged a 45-foot putt from the fringe to 3 feet for par. Miss it and he falls two shots behind with one hole to play. It was slick, and he poured it in the heart.

"The longest three feet I've ever seen," Garcia said.

The other came on the 18th after a tee shot into the right rough left him no chance to reach the green. He came up 50 yards short, his pitch ran by the hole and Garcia was discouraged to see it roll so far by. Those are the putts he hasn't made.

But he felt a strange sense of calm, knowing he was going to make the par, and he did.

"I was so happy to see that putt go in," he said.

Playing for the first time in his career with a 54-hole lead, Goydos battled to keep it. He made two unlikely birdies, a 50-foot putt on No. 4 and chipping in from 100 feet on No. 10, and led by three shots with five holes to play.

But a two-shot swing on the 14th set up the finish. Garcia rolled in a 45-foot birdie putt, while Goydos' approach came within inches of hitting the flag, bounding over the green. He missed a 10-footer for par.

The wind was relentless, stronger than it had been all week, turning the Stadium Course into a terror.

It might have been worse except that tour officials did not cut the greens and applied a double dose of water. That didn't keep Jesper Parnevik from posting an 85, the highest score at TPC Sawgrass in five years. It was one of nine rounds in the 80s, but not the most damaging. Kenny Perry, who started the final round one shot behind, shot 81.

Defending champion Phil Mickelson knew what he was up against early. Walking from the putting green to the first tee, a gust blew his cap off his head and sent it tumbling into the pond. Lefty hooked his opening tee shot into a mound and three-putted for double bogey, and his hopes of being the first repeat winner ended with a 3-foot birdie he missed on No. 11 and a tee shot into a palmetto bush on the 12th.

He closed with a 78.

Latest From ...