José Coceres' second title states case for top rookie

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There were still 15 minutes left in a rain delay, yet here was José Coceres, stretching and pacing on a drizzly 18th fairway. Playing partners Davis Love III and Scott McCarron remained under shelter, waiting out the final drops of what had been an afternoon downpour.

But José Coceres was ready to play.

His eagerness was understandable. Coceres had a two-stroke lead on Love in the final round of the National Car Rental Classic Oct. 21 when play was halted after their drives on No. 18. He was minutes away from the second victory of a topsy-turvy rookie year.

“I was feeling good about the way I was playing,” said Coceres, who earned $612,000 at Disney World and jumped from No. 56 to No. 33 on the season earnings list. “I was stretching and preparing (during the rain delay), thinking about my approach shot.”

After the 49-minute delay, Coceres’ approach to 30 feet set up a nervy finish as his birdie putt stopped six feet below the hole.

“I was shocked to see him lay it that far short,” said Love, who made a 15-footer for birdie on No. 18 to halve Coceres’ lead to one.

“Everyone on the green, except for him, perked up.”

Coceres calmly drilled his 6-footer, becoming the ninth player to win more than once this season. His first PGA Tour victory came in the WorldCom Classic in April. The 38-year-old Argentine rookie also became the 53rd player to top $1 million this year. He has earned $1,496,122 in 2001 and is approaching No. 30 on the money list, which would qualify him for the Tour Championship.

“When he hit (the winning putt), he knew he had made it,” said Love, who finished in the top-5 for the second consecutive week after a six-week layoff that offered time to convalesce an injured disc in his neck. “But, that’s indicative of how he was putting. He made every putt he needed to make. I said yesterday it would take 63 to beat him because of how solid he was playing.”

Actually, a 64 would have been enough for Love, who instead shot 66 and finished at 22 under par. Coceres, after shooting 68-65-64 to take a three-stroke, third-round lead, shot 68 Sunday to finish at 23 under.

Quite an accomplishment from a player who three weeks ago nearly made the decision to finish the season on the PGA European Tour..

“Obviously, I’m happy with the decision (to finish the season on the PGA Tour),” said Coceres, who second victory of the season also was his second top 10.

After winning the WorldCom Classic in a playoff at Harbour Town Golf Links, Coceres missed five cuts in his next 13 events. In all, Coceres has missed seven cuts in 18 events this season. In a season of ups and downs, Disney was a welcome high.

The final round began at 10 a.m. on split tees on Disney’s Magnolia Course, and the players were grouped in threes in an attempt to avoid the expected afternoon downpour. The change didn’t seem to affect Coceres, who used the pivotal ninth hole to keep Love at bay. After Love had drawn even at 19 under par with a birdie on No. 8, a drive in the left rough on No. 9 was his undoing.

Love bogeyed the hole, and Coceres’ birdie was the beginning of Love’s end.

“I hit my worst drive of the week on No. 9,” said Love. “That just killed me.”

But it was life for Coceres, who birdied the next twocq holes and who was never was seriously challenged the rest of the way until the 18th green. After rolliing his 6-footer to win, Coceres unfurled a pillow case on which he had written in Spanish, “Happy Mother’s Day for all the mothers.” Sunday was Mother’s Day in Argentina, and Coceres couldn’t think of a better gift. Moments later, he was speaking of the Disney victory quelling criticism he has received back home for skipping the Argentine Open to play in the BellSouth Classic in April.

Coceres said he thinks his latest victory has silenced his critics.

“I don’t think they’re going to be upset for long,” he said.

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