A week ago, Isao Aoki closed out a bad week at the U.S. Senior with a final-round 83. Given the slump Aoki had fallen into after being plagued last year by shoulder and back problems, he didn't figure he was going to play that well at the $1.35 million State Farm Senior Classic.
But the Hobbit's Glen Golf Club in Columbia served to rejuvenate Aoki's game, and his spirit, especially during a final round of 7-under-par 65. That he lost on the second extra playoff hole to Leonard Thompson didn't seem to bother him.
"It's a big improvement," said Aoki, once considered among the world's best players.
Starting the round four shots off the lead, Aoki played his way into contention with a 4-under-par 32 on the front nine, then forged into the lead with birdies on three of the last four holes of regulation before Thompson forced the playoff.
It was reminiscent of the wondrous talents Aoki had first displayed in the U.S. two decades ago when he narrowly lost to Jack Nicklaus in the 1980 U.S. Open and then won his first - and only - PGA Tour event three years later by bouncing a shot off the rocks to win the Hawaiian Open.
He nearly won yesterday. After making a 10-footer for birdie on the first playoff hole, Aoki hooked his 4-iron approach on the par-5 18th. The ball nipped some trees and landed in the rough, but he hit a flop wedge to about 12 feet. That time he missed.
"On the second playoff hole I had a bad lie in the rough," Aoki said. "I hit a 4-iron instead of a 5-wood."
Aoki, who will turn 58 next month, was encouraged by his performance.
"If I keep working hard, things will get better," he said.
Green's close again
Former U.S. Open and PGA champion Hubert Green made a run for the second straight year. Last year, he fell out of contention early after starting in the final group by making a bogey on the first hole. Yesterday, after a binge that included two birdies and his 22nd career hole-in-one helped Green tie for the lead at 10 under, he three-putted from 15 feet on the par-4 14th hole.
"I'm putting badly," he said. "I putted badly all week. I three-putted four times this week. That's pathetic."
His putting woes overshadowed the hole-in-one, his second on the Senior Tour.
"I hit the ball and it went in," Green said of a 7-iron on the 157-yard, par-3 11th hole, where the ball hit the apron of the green and bounced three times before disappearing into the cup. "You're supposed to do that, aren't you?"
Defending champion Christy O'Connor Jr. of Ireland had a tough day, finishing with a 3-over-par 75. After starting out tied for the lead at 8 under with Thompson and Dana Quigley, O'Connor was hurt by a couple of bogeys.
"I felt exhausted all day," O'Connor said. "I knew when I came over the top a few times it proved that the legs weren't working. This was my fourth straight week. I should have only played three."
O'Connor said he will probably take off this week's Ford Seniors Players Championship to rest for next week's British Open at St. Andrews, Scotland.