By Brian Keogh
Webb Simpson eased to victory in The Players and Justin Thomas snatched Dustin Johnson's world No 1 crown as Tiger Woods edged closer to his best at Sawgrass.
After a scintillating 65 on Saturday, 14-time major winner Woods went into the final round 11 strokes behind the runaway leader but racked up six birdies in his first 12 holes to soar to tied second.
While it came to nothing in the end as he bogeyed the 14th and splashed down in the lake at the 17th for a double bogey, carding a 69 to finish tied 11th on 11-under par, he looks closer to his very best just nine events into his comeback
"I got myself up there," Woods said. "I think I got within four at one point... I played so well today —even better than yesterday— and really got nothing out of it."
Simpson (32) had a six-shot lead playing the 18th and could afford to find water with his approach, finishing with a double bogey for a 73 to win by four shots from Charl Schwartzel (67), Jimmy Walker (67) and Xander Schauffele (67) on 18-under par.
After sandwiching a course record 63 between rounds of 66 and 68, he led by a tournament record seven shots overnight but could only par the first six holes to see the chasing pack close the gap to just four.
The likes of Woods, Danny Lee, Jason Day, Jason Dufner all made moves but while he followed a birdie at the seventh with bogeys at the eighth and 10th, Simpson birdied the 11th to find himself five clear and after a birdie at the 16th he never looked like being caught.
“It feels great," said the 2012 US Open champion after his first win since claiming the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open four years ago.
"I'm exhausted. It was a long day. It's actually probably harder work to be ahead by five or six than near the lead.
"But I will learn from it. I battled through it. I didn't have my best stuff today, but it was good enough."
There was also joy for US Open champion Brooks Koepka, who left Sawgrass with a spring in his step after he made only the second albatross two at the 16th, one-hopping a six-iron into the hole from 208 yards.
Thrilled to be back in action again after being out for four months with a wrist injury, he birdied the 17th and lipped out for a course record 62 at the 18th, tapping in for a 63.
"There's nobody more excited to be here than me, I can tell you that,” said Koepka, who almost didn't tee it up in the first round after a tweaking his wrist on the range on Wednesday.
“To get back out, it felt like it took forever. The days were very long during that four-month period and to get out, it's refreshing to be outside and just to get started practising.
“I thought that was so much fun and even finally to get back in competition because that's what I miss the most.”
After turning at four-under Koepka birdied the 14th and then watched his six-iron from 208 yards at the 16th one-hop into the hole for a two just 12 months after Rafa Cabrera Bello made the first albatross there.
Koepka then birdied the treacherous 17th from five feet but his 14 footer at the 18th for a 62 caught the edge of the hole.
“I thought I made it,” Koepka said after it lipped out.
He laughed when he holed out for his albatross having complained to his Irish caddie Ricky Elliot early in the round that he hadn’t left himself a tap-in since returning from his wrist injury at the Wells Fargo earlier this month.
“Since we’ve come back I don't think we have hit one like inside the leather where you can walk up and just tap it in,” Koepka said.
“And then hit one pretty tight on 14 and then obviously make one on 16. If you're going to talk about it you might as well do it.”
The Floridian tied for 11th on 11-under with the likes of Woods and Thomas (25), who shot 66 to become the game's 21st world number one — and the fourth youngest after Woods, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy— as Johnson stumbled to a 72 to finish tied 17th.
As for Shane Lowry, he looks to be rounding into form for next week's BMW PGA after making five birdies a closing 71 that left him tied 46th on five-under.
The Offaly star (31) has struggled for consistency this year, but he could be one to watch again at Wentworth after making 28 birdies in his last two events, 17 of them at Sawgrass.
While he was left to rue two bogeys and a double bogey at the ninth, where he found water off the tee for the second time in four rounds, he was ranked sixth for strokes gained putting, which old bodes well for what lies ahead.