Former President George Bush, who is a local resident, drew a
standing ovation as he walked through the stands behind the 18th
green last Thursday during the first round of the Shell Houston
Open. Patrick Burke, a 35-year-old PGA Tour journeyman, was
approaching the last green just as the applause began. He
spotted Bush, saw the crowd rise, took off his hat and waved as
if the cheers were for him. "I can't believe you did that," said
fellow Tour player Fred Funk after he had stopped laughing.
Just kidding, Mr. President. But with that one silly gesture,
Burke captured the essence of last week's Tour stop at the TPC
at the Woodlands. Phil Blackmar was Mr. I Can't Believe You Did
That. For starters, he won, something he hadn't done since 1988,
the year Bush was elected president. Then there was all the dumb
stuff he got away with. He whiffed on one chip, bounced another
into a lake, hit a drive out of bounds and had to take an
unplayable lie after mashing a three-wood shot into some
underbrush while trying to reach a par-5 in two.
Blackmar also did some good stuff. On the second hole of the
tournament, his Speed Racer chip slammed the pin and dived into
the cup for a birdie. "Nice shot, Shaquille," deadpanned Larry
Rinker, with whom he was paired. (The following day, on the same
hole, Rinker sank his approach shot for an eagle and got the
Shaq back from Blackmar.) On the next hole Blackmar pulled the
pin before chipping in for birdie. In the second round he
chipped in for eagle on the par-5 13th.
The victory was the third of Blackmar's 14-year Tour career. All
three have come in playoffs and in all three Blackmar made a
birdie on the first extra hole. Probably the Tour's most serious
fisherman, and at 6'7" perhaps the tallest player ever to win a
Tour event, Blackmar holed a 12-foot putt to beat Jodie Mudd and
Dan Pohl in the 1985 Greater Hartford Open. He sank a 50-footer
on the 18th to tie Payne Stewart in the 1988 Provident Classic
in Hixson, Tenn., then made a 25-footer to beat him. This time
he squeezed in a five-foot par putt at the 72nd hole to tie
Kevin Sutherland, then drained the winner from almost the same
spot a few minutes later. "It's incredible," said Blackmar, a
39-year-old Texan who lives in Corpus Christi. "All I can say is
dreams can come true."
Lately, those dreams have been small ones. His game was on the
rocks late in '94. "I beat myself up mentally and got to the
point I couldn't break an egg," says Blackmar. "All year I made
just three or four cuts [actually five in 30 events] and only
$28,000. I thought I was pretty much done and didn't want to
play. For a year and a half all I thought about was, What else
can I do for a living? But I didn't find anything that was as
good as golf. The Tour is like having a chance to win the
lottery every week, and there are only 156 tickets."
So despite losing his Tour card at the end of '94, Blackmar
decided to stick to what he knows best. First he worked on his
swing with instructor Jim Flick. Then he entered the qualifying
school. In the first stage he was seven shots over the cut line
through 14 holes of the third round when he sank a 30-foot
birdie putt, holed a seven-iron from the fairway for eagle,
parred the next and birdied the last. The next day Blackmar shot
six under to easily advance. "Why these things happen, who's to
say?" he asks. In the final stage Blackmar was on the cut line
with six holes to play but birdied twice to earn his card. He
barely kept it in '95, pulling out a fourth-place finish in the
last month of the season, at the Las Vegas Invitational, to
remain exempt by finishing 121st on the money list. He was only
slightly better in 1996, with three top-10 finishes in 28 events
and a 96th-place showing.
Going into Houston this year, Blackmar had been no better, stuck
again in 96th place, with $78,432 in earnings in 10 events. But
Houston is a good event at which to get well. The tournament is
stuck between the Masters and the U.S. Open, in that no-fly zone
where the top guns, not yet ready to gear up for the Open, take
a break. Seventeen of the world's 20 top-ranked players skipped
the event. Only 16 of the top 50 played. But on Tour, one man's
weak field is another's opportunity.
A few familiar faces showed up. Fred Couples, whose father, Tom,
is undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia, was tied for sixth
going into the final round but shot 42 on the front nine.
Three-time champion Curtis Strange started fast with a 67 but
closed with an 82 that could have been really ugly had he not
eagled the par-5 15th. Former Ryder Cup captain Lanny Wadkins,
finally recovered from a severe case of bronchitis, made four
straight birdies near the end of his round on Sunday to close
with a 67 and a tie for sixth, only his third top-10 finish
since 1994. During the pro-am, Steve Elkington, a Houston
resident and the Tour's leading money winner this season, aced
the 196-yard 8th hole, which has a recently redesigned green.
"Now it's too easy," joked Elkington, who rushed up the leader
board with a final-round 65 to finish third, two strokes behind
Blackmar and Sutherland.
The player most in demand, Tiger Woods, wasn't there, although
he created some pretournament buzz. When his handlers at IMG
became concerned that Woods might get bored with a month off
after winning the Masters, they booked him a suite at the
Woodlands. That prompted a flurry of rumors, ticket sales and a
futile Tiger watch.
The course's greens, rebuilt to USGA specifications after last
year's tournament, were also a disappointment. Tour player Jeff
Maggert, who lives at the Woodlands, and local golf course
architect Carlton Gipson drew good reviews for the redesign work
they did, but a rough winter impeded the growth of the new
grass. The unevenness of the greens partly explained why the
winner's total of 12 under par was the highest on the Tour this
year. "Yes, the greens are spotty," said David Ogrin, who
finished eighth. "You can't scold babies for acting up. The
grass and these greens are just babies."
This story came down to four players on the final nine.
Elkington, who had started the round seven strokes back, eagled
the 15th to get to seven under for the day and tie Sutherland,
who was playing the 9th, for the lead. Elkington then parred in,
but because the weather was perfect with almost no wind, he was
pretty sure he'd come up a shot or two short. He was right.
Jerry Kelly was in position to win too, starting the final round
one stroke back. Kelly, a Madison, Wis., native, attended the
University of Hartford so he could play hockey and golf and was
unpleasantly surprised in his first month of college when the
school dropped its hockey program. It was probably just as well.
Kelly had broken his left arm in eight places playing hockey
earlier that year. On Sunday the leaders escaped his grasp when
he didn't make a birdie until the 13th hole.
Sutherland was left as the only serious challenger after his
playing partner, Blackmar, birdied 11, 12 and the two par-5s, 13
and 15. Blackmar used his length--he's a former national long
driving runner-up--and his short game. Sutherland relied on his
iron play, as at the 456-yard 5th hole, where his two-iron
approach stopped four feet from the cup. A 32-year-old from
Sacramento who has been to qualifying school three times,
Sutherland had the lead at the halfway point of last year's
Canon Greater Hartford Open before settling for a ninth-place
tie. His younger brother, David, tied for 20th in Houston, then
followed Kevin to the finish.
It was a good one. Sutherland bogeyed the par-3 16th to fall two
behind Blackmar, who thought the tournament was his when he hit
a sweet drive at the treacherous 17th, a dogleg left that
requires an approach shot over a lake. Not so fast. Blackmar's
ball rolled through the fairway into a gnarly lie. His approach
went over the green, leaving him a dicey downhill pitch over a
mound to a pin set close to the water. He knew if he aimed for
the pin and didn't land his shot in exactly the right spot, the
ball would roll into the hazard. One option was to play safely
to the middle of the green and take his chances with a
20-footer. Instead he shot at the pin, and his ball caromed off
the mound and rolled across the green into the lake. He
recovered to sink a six-foot putt for double bogey and drop back
into a tie.
"When his ball went in the water, my adrenaline started to flow,
boy," Sutherland said.
There was more adrenaline at the par-4 18th, a dogleg right with
a long approach over another lake. Blackmar found the back
bunker, then blasted to five feet. Sutherland safely played to
the back left corner but didn't get his 50-foot first putt
inside of Blackmar's ball. Advantage Blackmar. Sutherland sank
the par putt. Advantage Sutherland. Blackmar wriggled his in the
left side. Playoff.
The players returned to 18. Sutherland played a beautiful
approach with a four-iron, leaving himself 20 feet left of the
pin. Blackmar followed his go-for-broke instinct and stiffed a
six-iron. After Sutherland's putt drifted left, Blackmar rolled
in his three-footer for the win.
"I played the playoff hole as well as you can play it. Phil just
played it better," said Sutherland, who at least locked up his
Tour card for '98 with the $172,800 runner-up check. "I'm very
disappointed, but I played really well. I had a great time."
So did Blackmar, who is glad he didn't give up on golf two years
ago and get a real job. He has had a few of those. He tried
being a bank auditor, a truck driver, a greens mower, and a golf
club and sprinkler repairman. None of those paid anywhere near
the $288,000 he earned here, more than he had won in any of his
previous 13 seasons on Tour. "It was a real roller-coaster
week," Blackmar said. "Out of bounds, three or four three-putts,
a chip in the water, a whiffed chip, an unplayable. And a
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN [Phil Blackmar playing golf]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Strange made a splash early but took a dive on the weekend. [Curtis Strange golfing out of water hazard]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Sutherland's consolation was knowing that he won't have to return to qualifying school in '97. [Kevin Sutherland playing golf]