2004: Road-warrior Hamilton motors home at Honda

By Rex Hoggard

Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

It was 17 of Tom Fazio’s windblown best topped off with a benign dollop of Arthur Hills. It was a 38-year-old rookie crunching along to his first PGA Tour title like a grizzled veteran. It was a well-worn Ping putter dug from the depths of a used-club barrel in some Japan golf shop that carried the day.

It was Oz and the Big Fish’s “Town You Can Never Leave” all rolled into one with Todd Hamilton, a pro golf vagabond who spent the better part of the past decade piling up yen on the Japan Golf Tour, the unwavering answer to all of the Country Club at Mirasol’s mystery.

It was what the golf world has come to expect from the Honda Classic.

It’s been nearly a quarter century since this tournament bore the name of its high-profile creator, but the former “Jackie Gleason” is still as quirky and unpredictable as its namesake ever was.

Unexpected twists and turns were Gleason’s signature and few cornered like Hamilton, who shouldered a four-stroke lead into the final round March 14 and promptly started dropping shots as the wind picked at the Country Club of Mirasol’s Sunrise course. He made the turn in 39 and by the time he’d reached the demanding 16th tee, he was trailing Davis Love III by a stroke.

“I may not swing the club perfectly, I may not do things by the book, but I feel that I grind it out,” Hamilton said.

“I never give up.”

To prove his point, almost as quickly as he’d come apart, Hamilton rattled off successive birdies at the 17th and 18th holes, relegating Love to second place at the Honda Classic for the second consecutive year and somehow justifying all those years Hamilton spent chasing his dream to the exotic ends of the earth.

The post-tournament talk concentrated on what his Honda victory gave Hamilton – $900,000 in earnings, a two-year Tour exemption and a better- than-average chance to earn his first trip to Augusta National. He’ll be Masters bound if he remains within the top 10 on the money list or top 50 in the Offical World Golf Ranking through the Players Championship (he’s ninth and 38th, respectively).

But just below the surface of all the after-event festivities simmered the satisfaction that comes only after a lifetime of toil.

“The money is great, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t need three, four cars and a 20,000-square-foot house,” said Hamilton, who shot a closing 74 for a 276 total and one-shot edge over Love. “The win is what’s very special to me.”

It’s not as though the Illinois native-turned-world traveler was a stranger to the winner’s circle. Eleven times he’d won in Asia and Japan since turning pro shortly after leaving the University of Oklahoma in 1987. But with winds gusting to 25 mph on a demanding Sunrise layout and a pursuer (Love) with as many PGA Tour victories (18) as Hamilton had Tour starts, the stakes never had been so high.

“This is the place, if you want to achieve and you want to feel like you have accomplished something great, this is the place to do it,” said Hamilton, who earned his first trip to the PGA Tour last December on his eighth trip to Q-School.

On Sunday at Mirasol he wasn’t great – rookies, even the 38-year-old variety, rarely are – but he was proficient and poised.

Following bogeys at two of his first five holes Sunday, Hamilton clung to a two-shot lead over Swede Fredrik Jacobson. In a quintessential Honda twist, it was his decision to hit 2-iron from the tee at the par-5 fifth – a 562-yard hole that played into the teeth of Sunday’s wind – that showcased Hamilton’s strengths.

“To hit 2-iron there, with everything that was going on, was the smartest thing he did,” said Ron Levin, Hamilton’s caddie and a replacement for the champion’s usual looper (Jeff Mulberry), who is stuck in Canada with visa problems. “Most guys would have pulled driver.

He was the same today that he was on the first hole Thursday. He had nothing to lose.”

Hamilton didn’t pull driver and he didn’t panic even when he glanced at a leaderboard as he walked up the 17th fairway and realized he was trailing Love – who was three groups ahead and had posted the day’s second-best round (69) – by a shot.

It was the reliable Ping putter, a B-60 model Hamilton picked up used for $50 in a Japan golf shop in ’95, that delivered a 12-footer for birdie on No. 17. At the par-4 18th – the finishing hole from the adjacent Arthur Hills-designed Sunset course, used because it accommodated skyboxes better than the Sunrise 18th – it was an easy 8-iron to 4 feet that sealed the victory.

It marked Love’s second consecutive near-miss at the Honda. A year ago, a birdie at 18 would have pulled him even with Justin Leonard, but he finished one shy. Same green, same result.

“Maybe they’ll play the other (Sunrise) 18 next year,” Love joked after his third top-3 finish this season. “He deserved to win. . . . He had a big lead and didn’t get off to a great start but finished like a true champion.”

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