Kemper Open's winding road is a winner


POTOMAC -- To paraphrase, some tournaments are born great -- the open championships of golf-loving countries, for instance -- while others have greatness thrust upon them: the Masters, the Ryder Cup competition and the Pebble Beach Pro-Am back in the days of Bing Crosby.

Mostly, though, tourneys have to tough it out through some lean years, pray that sponsors and the crowds keep the faith and hope vagaries such as bad weather, an unappealing date on the tour schedule, player prejudices and course peccadillos aren't too much to overcome.

In the nine years the Kemper Open has been contested at the Tournament Players Course at Avenel, perhaps no tournament, no course, no yearly turnout of playing talent has come under closer and usually derogatory scrutiny.

Hardly had the layout been hacked out of rolling forest and long-ago farmland when a senior competition was booked into the premises. While the oldies but goodies were poking fun at some of the unusual hole layouts, Arnold Palmer carded holes-in-one on consecutive days, so the name TPC-Avenel was immediately known.

Greg Norman, who had won the Kemper in 1984 and 1986 when it was played across a road at the prestigious Congressional Country Club, finished fourth in 1987 when Avenel became home for the early-June PGA stop. He politely said the par-3, ninth hole should be blown to kingdom come and he might not return in a hurry.

As the saying goes, at least they were spelling the name right. Players, it seemed, spent weeks trying to figure out reasons not to visit Washington.

Undaunted, the sponsor, the folks running the tournament, the volunteers and, most importantly, the crowds pressed on. So did several players, like the first winner at Avenel, Tom Kite, and last year's victor Mark Brooks.

While golf has long featured the "Unknown" who leads after one round of the U.S. Open, the Kemper's specialty has been the "Unknown" going on to win the tourney. Morris Hatalsky, Tom Byrum, Billy Andrade and Grant Waite are examples of guys who grabbed the spotlight for a week, not to mention a large check.

When some of the big boys did show up, they did well, staking out a spot in the top 10. But others got in the habit of ducking the arrival of the 90/90 (heat/humidity) season here and the list of winners still doesn't remind of a links who's who.

With another exciting and implausible finish over the rugged landscape yesterday, though, the event need not worry about ever becoming just another ho-hum way station between the high-profile "major" stops in April, June, July and August.

With rumbling in the skies and spectators envisioning the cars being hubcab deep in mud in distant pastures, tour standouts Davis Love and Corey Pavin and relative newcomer Robin Freemen were tied at 12-under-par as they prepared to run the gantlet, the nasty finishing holes at Avenel. No more than 30 minutes before, Norman, Payne Stewart and Neal Lancaster were the names pushing Love on the scoreboards littered throughout the course. And Nick Price, No. 1 in the world, took a run, too.

Mostly forgotten was Lee Janzen, who had won a tour stop earlier this season but whose consistency and dorky baseball caps seem to work against him when folks get around to rattling off the top names in the game these days. Janzen finally nosed into a share of the lead with a birdie on the home hole, making him 4-for-4 in the birdie department on a par-4 that randers an average score of 4.26.

Love, who won last week in Ohio, led after the second and third rounds and was still solidly in front with seven holes to play.

He put a tee shot four feet up a pine tree at No. 13 in remarkable fashion. Suddenly, to him, the fairways were about as wide as they'll be at the Open at Shinnecock Hills this week. Love finished bogey-double bogey. Freeman finished bogey-bogey. Pavin wasn't playing tee to green any better, but what you have to remember about Corey is he can get up and down from the bottom of a well.

When the dust had cleared and about 30,000 people congregated at the 18th green to be treated to the gripping conclusion of this serial, Pavin forced a playoff with Janzen with a recovery shot and putt that had everyone agape. Analyst Ken Venturi, who has been working for CBS for 28 years and knows about such things, said, "That's the oddest turnaround of a scoreboard I've ever seen."

To prove his mastery of the 18th hole was not just a passing fancy, Janzen birdied it again to push Pavin back to second money.

"I had one bogey the last three days," the winner said, proudly. That's the type of thing that wins Opens, something Lee did two years ago.

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