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Thompson earns a smile


He walks around with a squinty-eyed scowl, looking as if he has an appointment with a tax auditor or a root canal specialist. In that way, Leonard Thompson is unlike most of his fellow pros on the Senior PGA Tour who seem to enjoy their lucrative and leisurely second careers a lot more than he does.

Thompson didn't smile much, if at all, throughout most of the $1.35 million State Farm Senior Classic at the Hobbit's Glen Golf Club in Columbia. Even after he took a share of the lead in the second round Saturday or when he grabbed it for himself early in yesterday's final round, and certainly not when he lost it later.

In fact, Thompson's dour visage didn't change until after he plucked his ball out of the cup on the 18th hole. For the third time. It was only then, after beating Isao Aoki of Japan on the second playoff hole, that Thompson cracked the toothiest of smiles.

And why not? By making birdies each time he played the par-5 finishing hole yesterday, Thompson forced the playoff with Aoki after both finished the 54-hole tournament in 11-under-par 205, and won it with a 2-foot putt after Aoki missed from 10 feet.

It was Thompson's second win in four years on the Senior Tour, and a replay of the first. That came two years ago at a tournament when Thompson birdied the second playoff hole to beat Aoki. This victory was worth $202,500, giving Thompson the biggest check of his 30-year career.

"That was nerve-racking and exciting and a lot of things I'm not going to tell you," said Thompson, a three-time winner who earned nearly $1.8 million on the PGA Tour. "It's very rewarding to know that the things I've been working on actually work."

Thompson not only changed the ball he was playing a few months ago, but he also began working with a sports psychologist to help calm his on-course nerves. But the one thing that hasn't changed is his demeanor. It is the way he has played dating to his years at Wake Forest with Lanny Wadkins.

Asked if he was having a good time yesterday, Thompson laughed.

"All of our professional lives, we're taught not to show emotion," said Thompson, who shot a final round of 3-under 69. "So if you get too high with a good shot, you'll get too low with a bad one. That's why I look like I'm not having fun. Man, I had a blast out there. ... But I was focused."

It showed, as Thompson played steadily. He took the lead at 9 under with a 2-putt birdie on the par-5 third hole and, after making a miraculous par on the par-5 fifth despite hitting into a drainage ditch, increased his lead to two shots with a 5-footer for birdie on the par-3 eighth.

"That's where I saved the round," Thompson said of the par-5 fifth, on which he made a terrific recovery shot. "That could have been a 6 or 7 as easily as it was a 5."

Had he made a few more birdies on the front nine - lipping out two short putts and leaving a delicate 12-footer on the par-4 sixth hole hanging on the edge of the cup - Thompson would have had an even bigger lead than the two-stroke margin he held over Aoki and former U.S. Open and PGA champion Larry Nelson at the turn.

Others charged, too. Another former U.S. Open and PGA champion, Hubert Green, sandwiched a pair of birdies around the first hole-in-one in the history of the 3-year-old event to briefly tie for the lead at 10 under. Bruce Fleisher made five straight birdies to get to 8 under but got no closer.

After Nelson three-putted from 25 feet for bogey on 18 to fall back to 9 under, it came down to Aoki and Thompson. Aoki, playing three groups ahead, made a sensational 15-footer on 18 to take the lead at 11 under. After missing a 5-footer for birdie to tie on 17, Thompson had a partial view of a scoreboard.

"I knew someone was at 11 under, but I couldn't see who it was," he said later. "I knew I had to make birdie."

Thompson did, as he had during the first two rounds and would in each of the two playoff holes. His 30-footer for eagle fell a foot short, and he tapped in before going back to the 18th tee. Both times in sudden death, he drove the ball in the left rough but hit his approach to the fringe of the green and made terrific lag putts from about 60 feet to set up easy birdies.

On the second one, Thompson didn't think he had hit the ball hard enough.

"I thought I had left it 5 feet short but it kept on going," said Thompson. "It was fortuitous for me. You didn't know I knew that word."

When he tapped in for his birdie, Thompson's guard dropped. He raised his arms and doffed his hat. He picked up his 5-year-old grandson and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He found his wife of 33 years, Lea, and the two embraced.

"He's worked so hard this year," Lea said, her voice choking with emotion.

Aside from going to sports psychologist Debra Graham, Thompson also went to a nutritionist after he found himself drained of energy much of the time. He changed his diet to include more red meat and salt, and his game improved.

Thompson seemed almost nonchalant about his victory, and he didn't think there was anything too strategic about playing the same hole twice in sudden death.

"This is not brain surgery," he said.

It only seemed that way.

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