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TPC's unlikely winner provides unlikely finish

The destination could never do the journey justice. Not when the final score says 72, even par. Ho-hum? Hardly.

There were chip-ins and lip-outs, and birdies and bogeys, and three-putts and an eagle. There also were a few brain cramps for Craig Perks, who needs only to remember a phenomenal finish on Sunday at the Players Championship.

An eagle-birdie-par ending including two chip-ins will be hard to forget.

"I think that was the easiest 72 I ever shot in my life," joked Perks, who won the Players Championship in his first attempt and became the only player in the tournament's 29-year history to make it his first PGA Tour victory.

His two-stroke victory over Stephen Ames came on a treacherous TPC-Sawgrass Stadium Course that yielded only two sub-70 scores Sunday among the top 10 players.

And it wasn't secured until his chip shot from behind the 18th green found the bottom of the cup for par after he missed the fairway with another errant drive, chipped out and knocked his approach over.

"I couldn't find the planet to save my life," said Perks, who nonetheless earned $1.08-million from the $6-million purse, will make a huge jump from 203rd in the World Ranking and gets his first trip to the Masters next month. It will be his first major championship.

"By far this was the most difficult golf course I've ever played," said Perks, 35, a native of New Zealand who now lives in Lafayette, La. "Coupled with it being Sunday and being in contention, it was even more demanding. But I pride myself on never giving up. I told myself to hang in there."

And that was the key on this day. Few players other than Ames were able to make a move. Ames, who never has won on the PGA Tour, shot 67 early to get to 6-under par for the tournament, then watched as player after player faltered.

Rocco Mediate shot 73 to finish third, three shots back, with Sergio Garcia (71), Scott Hoch (72), Billy Andrade (72), Jeff Sluman (74) and third-round leader Carl Paulson (77) tied for fourth, four back. All flirted with the lead during the final round. Clearwater's John Huston (70) and Nick Price (69) tied for ninth. Perk's 72-hole winning total was 280, 8-under par.

"You kind of had a sense that this was a wacky week," Andrade said.

"I said everybody is going to be surprised what the winning score is going to be," Garcia said. "This course is not that easy. As the greens were firming up and the wind was still blowing, I said it. I knew it. And I knew what I had to do."

"Everybody was falling down," said Ames, who won $648,000. "I thought 6 (under) was a good enough number. I thought I would have a very good chance of winning, especially after Craig bogeyed 15. I thought for sure I had a good chance, and then he did the miracle stuff."

And it occurred at the most unlikely time. Perks struggled for most of the day. He hit four of 14 fairways and missed par putts of less than 2 feet at the 12th and 15th holes.

Then he faced the trio of tough finishing holes. At the par-5 16th, Perks finally found the fairway, from where he had 208 yards to the pin. He hit a 4-iron that drifted precariously close to the water that guards the right side of the green, with the ball coming to rest in the tall grass between the fringe and the railroad ties.

From there, Perks pitched onto the green and watched the ball roll 20 feet into the cup for eagle. That moved him into the lead, a shot ahead of Ames.

Then at the par-3 17th, the island green that has seen its share of heartache, Perks may have hit the shot of the tournament. His 9-iron came to rest 28 feet from the cup. Then he dropped the birdie putt for a two-shot lead.

"That was remarkable," Perks said. "I really was just trying to get (the putt) close, with all the trouble I had on the short ones. When it fell in, that was incredible."

Perhaps the euphoria got the best of Perks, who decided to hit a driver off the tee at the 18th hole, when all he needed was bogey to win. Sure enough, Perks hit a wayward drive that came to rest behind trees and in the rough. He chipped out to the fairway, then knocked his third shot over the green.

From there he had to get up and down to win the tournament, but he knocked in the 30-foot shot for a par.

"When the thing landed, I knew I had won because it wasn't going to go any more than a foot past," he said. "When it got closer and closer and closer and disappeared that was an incredible emotion right there."

Perks, who has bounced around in golf's minor-league Hooters Tour, the Tour and nine times went to the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, never played a round quite like it. He was in and out of the lead five times. He made two pars over the last 14 holes, only five in the round.

"But to be honest, I haven't played as hard a golf course like this," Perks said. "I think that's what leads to the ups and downs."