By Dave Shedloski
Entrants in the 2002 Senior PGA Championship traveled to Akron, Ohio, to grapple not only among themselves for the oldest major title in senior golf, but also against a fierce and familiar old foe. That foe, venerable Firestone Country Club, they found as intractable as ever.
Fuzzy Zoeller, feeling rejuvenated and rediscovering his putting touch, became the first winner in eight years to win while coming from behind when he erased a one-shot deficit to Bobby Wadkins with a final-round 2-under-par 68 on Firestone's cantankerous South Course.
Zoeller's 2-under 278 total was the only score under par and the highest winning sum since Peter Thomsons 1984 Senior PGA Championship victory by an identical tally. The New
|2002 Senior PGA Championship|
|T4||Jim Thorpe||$ 86,000||69-71-72-69||281|
|T4||Roy Vucinich||$ 86,000||70-72-68-71||281|
|T6||Gil Morgan||$ 60,000||76-70-69-68||283|
|T6||Bruce Fleisher||$ 60,000||70-72-71-70||283|
|T6||Wayne Levi||$ 60,000||69-68-75-71||283|
|T6||Larry Nelson||$ 60,000||70-68-72-73||283|
|T10||Morris Hatalsky||$ 42,600||72-72-74-67||285|
|T10||Dana Quigley||$ 42,600||72-71-70-72||285|
|285||T10 Bob Gilder||$ 42,600||71-69-72-73||285|
|T10||Walter Hall||$ 42,600||70-68-73-74||285|
|T10||Jay Overton||$ 42,600||70-70-71-74||285|
Albany, Ind., native, a former Masters and U.S. Open Champion, became the 11th player in the history of the Champions Tour to make his first senior victory a major.
I wasn't sure Id ever win again, said Zoeller, 50, who had not won a tournament since the 1986 Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic a span of 15 years, 10 months and 27 days. Every time I got close, somebody seemed to play a little better. But I never stopped believing that I could still do it.
Not this time. Firestone's par-70 South Course, set up to an exacting 6,927 yards, surrendered very little to the games best players aged 50 and over. The greens, softened by rains early in the week, grew increasingly hard and fast, while the rough was high and penal. Firestone, which had previously hosted three PGA Championships, was the fourth most difficult layout in senior golf in 2002, with the field averaging 74.258. Each of the 144 players in the field had at least one round over par and only three men avoided more than one such score: Gil Morgan, Wadkins, and Zoeller, who had finished second to Larry Nelson in the 1981 PGA Championship.
Heavy overnight and early morning rains put a greater premium on driving accuracy, so it came as no surprise that Tom Kite, a former U.S. Open Champion, seized a share of the first-round lead with a 2-under-par 68. Already a two-time winner in 02, Kite had three birdies and one bogey to top the leaderboard with former PGA Professional Ted Goin and journeyman Mike Smith neither familiar with leading a major championship.
Goin, a former club professional at The Plantation in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., broke with convention by making birdie on the final three holes the nasty tail end of the famed Monster while Smith, a non-winner in 379 events over 25 professional seasons, birdied the last hole.
All three men hit at least 11 of 14 fairways. Defending Champion Tom Watson shot 69 along with Tradition winner Jim Thorpe and Senior Tour rookies Fuzzy Zoeller and Wayne Levi. Two-time PGA Champion Larry Nelson bogeyed two of the final three holes and led a group of 11 players at even-par 70. That group included club professionals Brian Lowe and Jerry Tucker.
Jack Nicklaus, who won a record-tying five PGA Championships, including the 1975 edition at Firestone South, three-putted the last hole for 71.
Perhaps the finest round of the day, however, belonged to 80-year-old Jack Fleck. The man who beat Ben Hogan in a playoff for the 1955 U.S. Open title, steered it around in a remarkable 77 even with a double-bogey at 18.
Amid conditions that resembled a U.S. Open, according to Nelson, players struggled for consistency. The 36-hole leader, Levi, was a perfect example.
Levi, the 1990 PGA Tour player of the year, offset four bogeys with six birdies in a 68 that gave him a one-stroke lead over Nelson, Larry Ziegler and Walter Hall. Levis 3-under 137 total was the highest two-round total to lead the Championship since, of all years, 1990. Nelson, Ziegler and Hall all equaled Levis 68. The four men were the only players under par as just 13 competitors shot below 70 on a calm, sunny day.
Casualties in Round 2 included Kite, who struggled to 73; Watson, who had 76; and Nicklaus, who gutted out a 78 despite a back injury and ran his streak of cuts in senior majors to 46, clearing it on the number, 149. Nicklaus would withdraw just prior to the third round and miss the rest of the season when his back failed to respond to treatment.
Thorpe, after a 71, led a group of five players at even-par 140. The others were Zoeller (71), Bobby Wadkins (70), Bob Gilder (69) and Innisbrook Resort PGA Professional Jay Overton (70). Overton was one of 13 PGA club professionals to qualify for the final 36 holes.
For the first time since the Championship was expanded to 72 holes in 1958, only one player was under par through three rounds as Firestone grew drier, faster and meaner. You're never home free here, Bobby Wadkins said after shooting 69, just one of five sub-par scores, to seize the 54-hole lead with a 1-under 209 total. Wadkins stood one shot better than Zoeller, Nelson and PGA Professional Roy Vucinich, who with Bob Eastwood shot the days low round, 68.
Wadkins, whose brother, Lanny, won the 1973 PGA Championship, had built a more comfortable advantage until suffering a double-bogey at the arduous par-4 home hole. Still, he had to be deemed one of the survivors during a round when the field scoring average was 73.5 and bogeys outnumbered birdies 2-to-1 (346-172). All of the top contenders confronted adversity coming in. Zoeller's 70 included a double-bogey at the 16th hole, the 635-yard par-5 Monster from which the entire course eventually derived its name. He also bogeyed the 18th. Nelson had four bogeys against two birdies and Vucinich, a former club professional from Sewickley, Pa., bogeyed three of the last four holes.
Overton and Hall shot 71 and 73, respectively, to come in at 1-over 211. Levi, the second-round leader, fell back with four others at 212 after a wild 75 that included five birdies, four bogeys and three double-bogeys. In all, 18 players were within four strokes of Wadkins, including Kite and Ray Floyd. A 72 by Watson put the defending champion eight shots adrift.
|TOP FINISHING PGA CLUB PROFESSIONALS|
The following 13 golfers made the cut
Putting overtook driving as the crucial element to victory, and no player mastered the greens better than Zoeller, who made a series of clutch putts, most of them for par, down the stretch to win his first tournament in 16 years.
Zoeller was the only player to finish under par with his closing 68 and 278 total, two strokes ahead of Wadkins, who carded a 71, and three-time Senior PGA Champion Irwin, who fired a 68. Zoeller collected $360,000, the biggest check in his 27-year professional career.
Despite spraying drives into Firestone's nasty rough, Zoeller negotiated the devious back nine with a solid short game that yielded three par saves in the final five holes, two with putts in the 10-foot range and the third with a nifty up-and-down from a bunker.
It seemed like every time I was out, my putter saved me, Zoeller said. Those are things that happen when you win tournaments.
Wadkins surrendered the lead with a shaky front nine that included bogeys on all five oddnumbered holes.
Thorpe shot 69 and Vucinich 71 to share fourth place at 281. Nelson stumbled in with 73 and ended up at 283 with Levi, Morgan and Bruce Fleisher. Vucinich was the low club professional, while Overton tied for 10th. Japans Seiji Ebihara surged into a tie for 18th with the tournaments low round, a 65, which included a record-tying 27 on the front nine. He birdied the first seven holes, the years best run on the 2002 Senior Tour.