POTOMAC -- The stage wasn't as large as Augusta National and the collapse wasn't nearly as monumental as the one Greg Norman suffered at last year's Masters.
But it was just as painful to watch Mark Wiebe's game come apart yesterday at Avenel in the final round of the Kemper Open.
Leading by three shots going into the day and by as many as four after seven holes, Wiebe saw the opportunity of his first PGA Tour victory in more than a decade disintegrate when he missed two short putts and bogeyed the last two holes.
After missing a two-foot putt on the par-3 17th hole, Wiebe watched a three-footer slide by the cup on the 18th green. It left him one shot behind Justin Leonard and in a state of shock. If it had been a boxing match, Wiebe would have been declared out on his feet.
"I knew what I had to do, but I didn't do it," Wiebe, 39, said after he left the scorer's tent, where he sat for several minutes trying to collect himself as Leonard collected his crystal vase and a first-place check for $270,000. "I'm speechless."
Wiebe's final round of 2-over 73, which included bogeys on three of the last four holes, wasn't as bad as Norman's 6-over 78 last year at Augusta. But Leonard shot the same score as Nick Faldo did -- 67 -- to finish at 10-under 274 and win for the second time in his four-year career.
"We all missed short putts this week. There's not a player in the field that didn't, and it's unfortunate that it had to happen on the last hole," said Leonard, 24. "But to my credit, I played really well today. I'm happy with the outcome. If it happened differently, I might have been a little happier."
Wiebe could not have been more dejected. A two-time winner early in his 13-year career, Wiebe had overcome a shoulder injury from a skiing accident that forced him off the tour in 1994 and grass allergies for which he recently began taking shots.
Those shots might have contributed to Wiebe's defeat. The strongest part of his game -- his putting -- abandoned him yesterday as he battled what might be called a case of pharmacologically induced yips. Despite making four birdie putts, he also three-putted for bogey four times.
"It's not just this week," said Wiebe, who will have to figure things out quickly, given that he's playing down the street at Congressional Country Club beginning Thursday at the U.S. Open. "I missed a bunch of putts in Dallas and my hands were quivering and it shocked me because I wasn't expecting it. Believe me, it's not fun when you feel like your hands are shaking and you're trying to win a golf tournament."
It looked for a long time that Wiebe would win for the first time since the 1986 Hardee's Golf Classic. Despite a bogey on the par-4 fourth hole after his tee shot went into the water, despite back-to-back bogeys on the eighth and ninth holes to negate successive birdies on the fifth and sixth, Wiebe was three up when he birdied the par-4 10th.
As Leonard was making his charge -- he had started the day five shots behind at 6-under, birdied the first two holes, parred nine straight and then got to 11-under through 15 -- Wiebe started to wobble. After a 20-foot birdie on the par-5 13th got him back to 12-under, Wiebe pushed his drive on the par-4 15th into the rough and wound up with a bogey.
"I felt like I was a little tired," he said later.
Still, it looked as if Leonard was running out of steam and holes when he bogeyed the par-4 16th. It looked as if Wiebe was running out of challengers when Nick Faldo, the three-time Masters and British Open champion, bogeyed the last two holes after getting to 9-under. And it looked as if Wiebe would head to the last tee with the lead after his 40-foot, downhill putt on the par-3 17th stopped two feet -- or less -- from the hole.
Shockingly, Wiebe's putt for par hit the left edge of the cup and spun out.
"I never make things easy for myself," Wiebe told his caddie as they walked to the 18th tee.
With Leonard preparing for a playoff, Wiebe was thinking only about winning. He ripped a perfect drive on the 444-yard par-4 18th. He hit a 9-iron to within 20 feet, but on a side of the hole where most of the players misread a severe right-to-left break. Wiebe seemed to survey the putt for an interminable amount of time.
"It breaks left," several fans shouted.
Wiebe misread the putt, too. Badly.
"I had been, if anything, overplaying the breaks on the greens," Wiebe would say later. "I wish I would have overplayed that one, because it broke twice as much as I thought. When you hit putts like that, it's not meant to be, I guess."
Then came the putt to tie Leonard and force a playoff.
"I was just trying to do my deal," he said. "I really didn't think much about making or missing. I just wanted to hit my line and I didn't do it. I made so many putts this week; four three-putts for me I can't really believe it."
Asked whether he would practice today for the Open, Wiebe smiled sadly.
"No chance," he said. "I'm going to try to sleep in tomorrow. I'll probably wake up at 6 [a.m.]. Just going to prepare myself for next week. I'm going to mentally try to get over this and move on."
Perhaps all he has been through the past decade helped Wiebe deal with his heart-wrenching defeat. It was the seventh time in his career that he had finished second, and the $162,000 he received was the biggest paycheck of his career.
Someone wanted to know whether this was the worst experience of his career. Wiebe laughed.
"Did I finish second?" he said. "This isn't that bad. I'm very disappointed, but, you know, only one guy beat me."
He was speaking of Leonard.
But he could have been talking about himself.
Player .......4th-Tot Par
Justin Leonard 67-274 -10 and
Mark Wiebe 73-275 -9
Greg Norman 67-277 -7
Nick Price 67-277 -7
Nick Faldo 71-277 -7
Mike Springer 72-277 -7
D. A. Weibring 67-278 -6
Lee Janzen 69-280 -4
Phil Mickelson 70-280 -4
Ben Crenshaw 68-281 -3
Corey Pavin 69-282 -2
Complete scores. 7c
Pub Date: 6/09/97