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Eleven years later, PLAYERS triumph remains sweet for Tim Clark 1

10th March 2021

Eleven years later, PLAYERS triumph remains sweet for Tim Clark

By Jim McCabe

Memories easily fade in our mad-rush, 24 hours per day, seven days per week world. And when you factor in the numbing COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the globe for more than a year now, well, there’s not a lot of time that’s been saved for nostalgia.

Which is a shame when one considers the superb talents that were once in the possession of Tim Clark, but are now covered in cobwebs, a victim of unfortunate happenstance. Gutty as it was that Clark rose to PGA Tour prominence despite being born with a left arm that could not be extended (thus he could not supinate), his career deserves more than anniversary footnotes:

To wit:

The upcoming PLAYERS Championship will be the 10th one competed since Clark posted a stirring come-from-behind victory in 2010. And it was just five years ago – the 2016 American Express in Palm Springs, California — when Clark played what might very well be his final PGA Tour tournament.

Surreal, such a consideration for a world-class ball-striker to not play beyond the age of 40. But that is sadly where Clark stands.

“With my back, I’m not playing any golf at all. I tried (more than a month ago), but it wasn’t good at all. I can chip and putt, but no full swings,” said Clark, 45, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Candice, and two children, Jack and Olivia.

“I cannot even play socially.”

So much of this could be digested and shaped into a pity for Clark, only the South African brushes that aside. Feeling blessed to have played at the highest level of professional golf for nearly 15 years, he won twice on the PGA Tour, piled up 54 top-10 finishes, competed in three Presidents Cups, and was a brilliantly straight driver of the golf ball who knew his limitations and never uttered a word of complaint.

“What I did with what I had, I’m very proud of,” said Clark. “Looking back, I was able to stay on Tour for as long as I was and to be competitive, and that’s a sense of accomplishment.

“All of us look back at things we didn’t do, how we didn’t win as much as we’d like, but when I look back at my career, I never once had to struggle to secure my card. I wanted to play longer, and I felt like I was getting better, but obviously it didn’t play out that way.”

When they gather at TPC Sawgrass for the 2021 PLAYERS Championship March 11-14, there will be opportunities to recall a list of heralded winners from recent years – Matt Kuchar in 2012, Tiger Woods in 2013, followed by Martin Kaymer, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, then Webb Simpson in 2018 and Rory McIlroy in the most recent PLAYERS, in 2019. (The 2020 tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Stellar star power, for sure, and Clark – unlike Woods and Kaymer and Day and McIlroy – never was No. 1 in the world. But neither was he ever an afterthought, not with his ability to ball-strike it with the best of them.

“He is a proper competitor, that one,” Geoff Ogilvy once said of Clark. “He is competitive. He’s impressive when he gets down the stretch.”

Never did the competitive fires in the 5-foot-7, 170-pound Clark burn quite like they did during the 2010 PLAYERS. Having stood seven shots back through 36 holes, he fired a third-round 66 and started Sunday’s final round just three off the lead.

“I had been on Tour nine years hadn’t won at that point,” said Clark. “I was saying to myself, ‘Is this ever going to happen?”

THE PLAYERS Stadium Course was firm and fast that May week, perfect for Clark, who rarely missed fairways and never felt overwhelmed by a golf course, even as the era of the bombers was taking hold.

“I always felt, I was as good with my hybrid (or long iron) as my competitor was with his 6-iron.”

He had come into the tournament playing “quite poorly, to be honest,” but as he got settled into a rhythm, Clark found “my own little world.”

When Clark made an 8-footer at the 18th hole to shoot a final-round 67, he was 16-under and settled into the locker room with the lead and a TV view of the two players, Lee Westwood and Robert Allenby, who could catch him.

They quickly squandered things away. Westwood, the 54-hole leader, hit into the water at the par-3 17th island green and made double. Allenby, needing to play at 2-under over the final three holes to tie, burned the cup at the par-5 16th with his eagle putt, and could not birdie either 17 or 18.

Finally, Clark was a PGA Tour winner.

“I always felt I could play the big tournaments,” he said. “I enjoyed the big events. And that week was as good as I could play.”

There would be a second win at the RBC Canadian Open in 2014, then late that fall in an ultimate David vs. Goliath playoff, Clark was beaten by Bubba Watson in the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions in China. Seemingly on top of his game, the dynamo from Durban seemed poised for another solid run of golf.

Little did he know it was about to come to a crashing halt.

Clark played in just 13 tournaments in the 2014-15 season, his play limited because of a pulled tendon in his left elbow. Feeling healthy in 2015-16, he was excited to get going, only to start feeling issues with his back.

“I didn’t know what was wrong, so I kept going out, trying to play,” said Clark. “We took a series of MRIs and all they showed was arthritis in the spine.”

He took injections. He was hopeful. He headed to Waialae Country Club in Honolulu, “a place I could play blindfolded,” and shot 66-69-65-68, finished joint 13th and was optimistic that he had turned the corner.

Instead, he played one more tournament, rounds of 78—68-74 in Palm Springs. The back pain was insufferable. He went to the sidelines and, unthinkable as it is, has never returned to competition since.

“I’ve seen different doctors and a team of surgeons. We’ve looked at the images and exhausted all the options,” said Clark.

Surgery has been proposed, one suggestion being to remove part of his ribs where they attach to the spine. “But there’s no guarantee,” said Clark. “It’s not a surgery done very often. It’s the only thing they think they can do, but they aren’t sure it will help.

“At the end of the day, I ask myself, ‘Is it worth the risk?’”

For now, the answer is no. Clark will pursue physical therapy and “I’ll continue to try certain things” to alleviate the pain. He always saw his 50th birthday as an opportunity he’d jump at and Clark remains optimistic that the PGA TOUR Champions will be in his future.

“But the bottom line is, I have to be healthy.” – Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

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