2004: Austin powers way to Buick breakthrough

CROMWELL, Conn.

Woody Austin went a stretch of six years on the PGA Tour’s proverbial bubble, wondering each autumn as he battled to crack the top 125 whether he’d have a job the following year. A pessimistic person by nature, Austin says he feels deep down he’s never really shown the world his true talents as a player.

“I feel like if I can get my confidence back, I can show that I haven’t shown you anything yet,” he said.

He showed something Aug. 29 at the Buick Championship. Having surrendered a lead with a closing bogey at the 72nd hole, Austin returned to the 18th tee for a playoff, bombed a drive down the middle, hit an approach inside 6 feet and made birdie to edge Tim Herron for his second PGA Tour title. The victory came nine seasons and 274 starts after he won the Buick Open as a rookie. Some things are worth the wait.

Austin long has been regarded as one of the purest ball-strikers on Tour, but his poor putting keeps him from contending.

Only once in all his years on Tour has he ranked inside the top 100 in year-end putting statistics. When you continually hit the ball close but can’t get it in the hole, well, Austin said it’s a pattern that can wear a player down.

“Unfortunately for me, I’m a very nervous individual and it shows on the greens a lot of times,” he said. “I’m starting to calm down a little bit as far as I’m not having to worry about my job.”

Austin, 40, who used work as a bankteller in Florida and would bartend nights to cover mini-tour entry fees, collected $756,000 (his biggest check as a pro), more than doubling his 2004 earnings. He finished 125th on the money list in 2001, just high enough to keep his card. A year later, he regained his card at Q-School after a dismal season. In 2003, Austin finally had a cushion, finishing in the top 50 (No. 44) for the first time since 1996.

Austin closed by shooting 4-under-par 66 at TPC at River Highlands, then prevailed in a playoff 16 months after a short miss kept him from beating Davis Love III in extra holes at the 2003 MCI Heritage. Nonetheless, the close call at Hilton Head was his first top-3 finish since 1996.

“I feel that deep down I never really showed the true talent that I have,” Austin said. “I feel like I’m one of the best players out here and I’ve never shown it.”

At the Buick, Austin rallied with five birdies over the first six holes on the back nine Sunday to overtake a wide-open field that included second- and third-round leader Fred Funk, Corey Pavin and Tom Pernice Jr.

Austin had a chance to win the tournament on the final hole of regulation, but after his drive finished in a divot, he flew his approach over the green and made bogey on the 444-yard 18th.

Herron, playing with Austin, bounced back from a double-bogey on the 17th hole by making a 24-foot birdie putt at 18 to join Austin at 10 under.

Austin quickly atoned for his bogey at the 72nd hole with a 345-yard drive to start the playoff, and landed his approach just inside 6 feet.

Herron’s tee shot landed in the left rough on a slope about 150 yards from the pin, and it was all he could do to get his second shot 55 feet short of the cup. His lag putt finished short and right, and he had to make his putt for par before Austin putted for birdie.

Austin then wasted little time rolling in his winning birdie putt. (“I’ve tried to do things a lot quicker,” he said.) He pumped his fist in the air and hugged his caddie, Brent Henley. After nine years without a triumph, Austin had wondered if such a day would arrive.

“I’m a little bit pessimistic, I guess, when it comes to my golf game,” he said. “I certainly wanted to feel vindicated after my victory my rookie year. . . . I feel like I’m starting to be vindicated again.”

Herron was looking for his first victory on the PGA Tour since winning at Bay Hill in 1999. He has struggled this summer with health problems. Herron contracted Lyme disease and missed three weeks on the Tour.

On Sunday, he had three birdies and an eagle on the back nine to catch the field.

“I haven’t broken out in a while. This was kind of my chance, so I’m kind of bummed out,” Herron said. “But health is probably the most important right now for me, just trying to get healthy.”

Both players started the day three strokes off the lead in a tightly bunched field at the event formerly known as the Greater Hartford Open.

The exciting finish made up for a glaring lack of star power – none of the Tour’s top 25 money winners were on hand. But heading into the final round, 20 players were within four strokes of Funk, who fizzled on the back nine.

Funk, 48, who is preparing for his first Ryder Cup, held a one-stroke lead after three rounds and protected it through 11 holes. He then made bogey on four of his next five holes.

Funk’s birdie-birdie finish left him at even-par 70 and 9 under for the tournament, lodged in a three-way tie for third with Pernice (67) and rookie Zach Johnson (66).

“I gave it away,” Funk said. “There was just a stretch of holes there, and that just kind of gave the tournament away. It’s pretty disappointing.”

Pavin, who briefly had a share of the lead through 12 holes, shot 70 and finished tied for sixth with Matt Gogel (67) and Jason Bohn (65).

– Staff and wire reports

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