PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. As the Players Championship wound down Sunday, there were as many compelling stories on the leaderboard as there were golf balls in the water surrounding the tournament's signature hole, the par-3 17th.
The players who held at least a share of the final-round lead included Jeff Maggert, a 49-year-old trying to win his fourth and most prestigious PGA Tour event in his 586th start, and David Lingmerth, who was poised to win his first tour event in his 13th start. There were sparring partners, Sergio Garcia and Tiger Woods, who were separated for the fourth round but tied with two holes to play.
By the end of the day, the great stories had fallen away, and the greatest player stood alone. Woods, summoning the kind of steely golf that eluded his closest competitors down the stretch, won for the fourth time in seven starts. On a warm, breezy day, he carded a 2-under-par 70 for a 72-hole total of 13-under 275, two strokes better than Maggert (70), Lingmerth (72) and Kevin Streelman (67).
The victory, Woods' 78th as a professional, came in his first start since the Masters, where he received a controversial reprieve wrapped in a two-stroke penalty from the Augusta National rules committee a day after taking an improper drop during his second round.
The incident cast a shadow so long it darkened his round Sunday. On the 14th hole, a 481-yard par 4, Woods hooked his tee shot into the water. He took a drop that was questioned by NBC announcer Johnny Miller.
Woods' playing partner, Casey Wittenberg, had the best view of the flight of Woods' ball.
"I told him exactly where I thought it crossed," Wittenberg said, "and we all agreed, so he's definitely great on that."
Mark Russell, a tour rules official, concurred. As Woods was in the clubhouse being interviewed about his victory, Russell stood outside reading from the rule book open to the page on drops to explain why Woods' drop was fine.
"The only guys who really know are Casey and his caddie, so that's who we rely on," Woods said.
Woods, 37, atoned for his pop-up hook at No. 14 with the precise shotmaking Pete Dye had in mind when he designed the course. Woods made the victory look easy, no small feat on a layout that has historically given him fits. He had won here only once, in 2001, with only one other top-three finish.
Woods' path to the award ceremony was cleared when Lingmerth missed a 73-foot birdie attempt at the last hole (and then missed the comebacker) and Maggert and Garcia plunked their tee shots in the water at No. 17.
Garcia, who came to the hole tied for the lead with Woods at 13 under, deposited two shots in the water, both landing in the same general spot, and walked off the green with a quadruple-bogey 7. To add insult to indignity, Garcia made a double bogey at the last hole. He posted a 76 to finish in a seven-way tie for eighth at 7 under.
"I just underhit it a little bit,' Garcia said, referring to the first water ball. "I felt with a little bit of adrenaline and stuff, I didn't want to shoot it over the green."
Lingmerth's biggest break of the fourth round came hours before his opening swing, when he was paired with Garcia in the final group instead of Woods.
Playing with Woods, who draws large, rowdy galleries, is akin to trying to hit a golf ball on an airport tarmac while planes are taxiing and taking off.