PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Hal Sutton knew he could beat Tiger Woods as long as Sutton didn't beat himself.
''If you give him an open door, he just rushes through it,'' Sutton said. ''That's what I was trying to keep from doing.''
Sutton slammed the door on one of the most prized victories of his tumultuous career Monday, a rock-solid 1-under-par 71 for a 1-stroke victory over Woods in The Players Championship.
In coming from seven strokes behind with seven holes to play to win at Pebble Beach, Woods got some help from Matt Gogel, who had a 40 on the back nine. He made up ground quickly in San Diego when Phil Mickelson took two double bogeys in five holes before recovering just in time.
Against Sutton, Woods had no such luck.
''Hal has always been a great competitor,'' Woods said. ''He drives the ball beautifully, hits a lot of good iron shots, and this week he rolled the ball well.''
Sutton called his 12th tour victory ''the greatest day of my golfing life.''
That career includes a PGA Championship at age 25 by going wire-to-wire to beat Jack Nicklaus, a slump so bad that Sutton nearly quit the game, and a resurrection that led him to stardom in the Ryder Cup.
This was even better.
On one of the most penalizing golf courses in the world, against the No. 1 player in the world in a duel that stretched into Monday because of weather, Sutton forced Woods to beat him by making hardly any mistakes.
''It just never looked like I was in trouble from Tiger's perspective,'' Sutton said.
Sutton missed only one green in the final round, on the par-3 eighth hole Sunday when his 3-iron found the edge of a bunker and left him with an awkward stance. He responded with a career-best bunker shot to 10 feet to save par.
He missed only one fairway. Over the final 45 holes, Sutton made only one score worse than par -- a triple bogey on the island-green 17th in the third round that reduced his 4-stroke lead to a single shot going into the final round.
And it was that hole that turned the Players Championship into Sutton's favor.
Woods failed to birdie a par 5 in the final round until he hit a smooth 5-iron to 12 feet and made the eagle putt on No. 16, shaving Sutton's lead to one stroke and firing off a fist pump that Woods first introduced on the TPC at Sawgrass six years ago when he won the first of his three straight U.S. Amateur titles.
''I figured if I could make that putt, it might make his putt a little more interesting,'' Woods said.
Sutton had 3 feet left for par and buried the putt, both of them taking that long walk along the edge of the water to the 17th tee box.
The 17th, where so many dreams have died, was playing easier because of overnight rains and only a trace of wind. Woods hit a wedge that found the right collar of rough, chipped to 6 feet and made the par. Sutton hit the center of the green and made a safe par.
The tournament effectively ended when Woods hit a 6-iron that drifted into a swale right of the 18th green, and Sutton watched his 6-iron stop 10 feet below the hole.
''Yes!'' he shouted, slapping hands with longtime caddie Freddie Burns and marching toward victory with the same determination he brought to the first tee 21 hours earlier.
''At least I made Hal work for it,'' Woods said. ''He wasn't going to have a nice stroll up 18 with no pressure on him. We had a good battle.''
Sutton, who finished at 278, earned $1,080,000 from the $6 million purse, the richest in golf. He now has won four times since turning 40.
Woods, meanwhile, still carries a load of confidence into the Masters in two weeks. It was the 10th time in his last 11 PGA Tour events that he has finished first or second. With $648,000, he pushed his season total to over $3.2 million, the third-highest total in PGA Tour history -- and he's played only seven tournaments.
''He lives up to his No. 1 ranking all the time,'' Sutton said. ''I can't say enough good things about Tiger. It's OK to praise him now. I don't have to go hit another shot with him out there.''
Sutton has no trouble giving credit where it is due. His only fear is that Woods is being built up so large that players buy into thinking he can't be beat.
Sutton was careful not to fall into that trap.
He recalled playing with Woods in the first two rounds of the Nissan Open last month, and scoring better both days. He said that proved two things -- that he could beat Woods, and that Woods knew he could beat him.
And Sutton figured it might some day help him on any given Sunday. In this case, it was a Monday, but he proved his point just the same.
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