2004: Ames, 40, aims true for overdue victory

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Lemont, Ill.

Entering the Cialis Western Open, Stephen Ames was known for a few things: Someone who had trouble getting into the United States for most of the 1990s because he had visa issues with immigration officials; the guy who called Tiger Woods a “spoiled 24-year-old” in 2000, only to have Woods respond, “Who’s Stephen Ames?;” the best player from Trinidad and Tobago, sister islands in the Caribbean that have only four 18-hole courses and had fewer than 1,000 golfers when Ames grew up there; and, lately, the best player never to have won on the PGA Tour.

Ames gladly scratched out that last part at the Western.

“It was just a matter of time,” a toothy Ames said.

A long time. Ames, at 40, is a late bloomer now in full blossom. He won in his 166th Tour start. He’s the first 40-plus player to break through for his first Tour title since Brad Bryant in 1995.

All of that called for a celebration in at least three countries, starting with July 4 fireworks and champagne with his family.

“I’m sure they’re partying in Trinidad now,” said Ames, who became a Canadian citizen in December and also holds Trinidad and British passports. “When I get home, we’ll be partying in Calgary. I own a restaurant there and it’ll be closed down so a few people can drink a few bottles of champagne.”

It didn’t take a tarot card reader to see corks popping in his future. Ames was primed to win. He entered Western Sunday with the Tour’s second best final-round scoring average and seven top-10 finishes in his last nine starts. He left with his ninth top 10 of the year, tied with Vijay Singh behind only Phil Mickelson’s 11. Heady stuff for someone who never had more than four in any of his previous six seasons.

“I used to believe that I had to have the perfect golf swing (to win),” Ames said. “That was the belief I had to change. I had to believe my swing was good enough to win.”

He was such a believer entering the Western that he sat down his two sons, Justin, 7, and Ryan, 5, and told them, “I’m going to win the trophy this week for you guys.” The boys hadn’t been to one of his tournaments since January. Coming down the last holes, he looked for his wife and kids in the gallery. He wanted them to share what he called “our dream come true.”

Ames now has the look of a major player. Groomed by swing, mental and physical coaches and the school of hard knocks, Ames heads to the British Open highly confident and skilled. He tied for ninth at the U.S. Open and returns to a Troon course where he tied for fifth in 1997.

“I don’t think I was half the ballstriker (in ’97) I am now,” Ames said after touring toughened-up Cog Hill No. 4 in 10-under-par 274, two strokes better than Steve Lowery and three ahead of Mark Hensby and Luke Donald. “I’m a lot more mature in the ways of golf and life. . . . In the past I’ve been very frustrated, impatient.”

He says he didn’t know how to prepare or eat properly. Now that he does, he also knows how to cash big checks. He’s already bagged $2.75 million this year, more than double his previous best season. He’s the latest Tour player to take a large load out of the country, for he’s the fifth consecutive non-American to win after David Toms captured the FedEx St. Jude Classic on May 30. What’s more, internationals filled five of the top six places at the Western.

His brother, Robert, might be the second-best player to come out of Trinidad, but at the Western, he caddied for Ames, a job Stephen’s wife, Jodi, had for four years. Robert had a close-up view of a victory fueled by short-game excellence and a tournament-best 6 under on par 4s.

Entering Sunday as the co-leader with Hensby, Ames held it together in 20 mph wind with a two-birdie 70 as his closest pursuers fell back. Ames took the lead for good when he birdied the 220-yard 12th from 4 feet while Lowery double-bogeyed No. 13. The three-shot swing put the eventual winner two up on Lowery and one up on Hensby. No one got closer than two strokes after Hensby pulled a 5-iron approach into a hazard and also doubled No. 13.

“I absolutely duffed it – a total duff,” Hensby said. “I think (Greg) Norman did it a few years ago. I thought of that as soon as I did it.”

Norman is a fellow Australian who finished second in the first three Westerns at Cog Hill, in 1991-93. At the end of the next year, Hensby made his own infamous mark at his then-home course by sleeping in his “old beater” car in the Cog parking lot for almost two months. One cold winter night, the broke first-year pro woke up with his toes so “frozen” that he cranked up the heat and drove around the neighborhood to thaw out.

Around the same time, Ames was having a hard time getting into the States because of visa woes. Reports said the problems began in 1992 when he misled immigration officials about living in the United States. The mess finally got better in 2000.

“I’m a good boy now,” Ames said, smiling.

One, finally, with a trophy. And bubbly refreshments lined up.

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