Lickliter steps up to first PGA Tour win


POTOMAC - Until yesterday, Frank Lickliter's most notable accomplishment was driving his Humvee up Magnolia Lane to the clubhouse at Augusta National last year for his first appearance at the Masters.

Until yesterday, Lickliter's most memorable moment in his six-year career on the PGA Tour came earlier this year at the Buick Invitational, when his triple-bogey lost to Phil Mickelson's double-bogey on the first playoff hole.

It all changed yesterday for Lickliter when he made an 8-foot putt for par on the final hole to win the rain-delayed $3.5 million Kemper Insurance Open at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel by one shot over rookie J. J. Henry.

The putt followed two straight bogeys that nearly eliminated Lickliter's three-shot lead. It also came after Lickliter had pulled his approach on the par-4 closing hole into thick grass left of the green, then stubbed his chip.

"I'm just delighted," said Lickliter, 31, who won a first-place check for $630,000. "I had a hard one to finish. Wasn't pretty. Didn't feel pretty. The putt felt extremely good though on the last hole. It took longer than I thought for me to win. It's awesome. It's incredible.

"It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life."

It looked as if Lickliter would have something else to remember. It looked as if he was being haunted by the ghost of Mark Wiebe, who'll forever be remembered here for making bogeys on the last two holes in 1997 and losing to Justin Leonard.

Instead, Lickliter did something that is nearly unheard of at this or any level of golf. By making a downhill, double-breaking putt to win after stumbling with two bogeys is something players far more accomplished rarely have done. Henry wasn't the only one preparing for a playoff.

"It doesn't matter how long the putt is," said playing partner Bradley Hughes of Australia, who finished tied for third with Phil Mickelson and Spike McRoy at 12-under par. "Anything longer than a foot in that case is nerve-racking."

Lickliter's putt ended the longest Kemper Open in the tournament's 34-year history, the first that had to be finished a day later because of bad weather. The final round was halted three times by rain Sunday and finally called with Lickliter waiting to putt on the 10th green and Henry on the 15th tee.

Both were at 16-under par, which is where Lickliter finished with a four-round total of 268 after he completed his round of 3-under 68. Henry opened the door when he bogeyed the par-4 16th hole, and Lickliter stretched his lead to three strokes with birdies at the par-4 12th and par-4 14th holes.

Lickliter said later he was unaware of his lead until after he hit his tee shot at 16.

"I probably made a mistake at 16, because after I hooked it left, I asked Tony, how we were doing," recalled Lickliter.

Lickliter's caddie, Australian Tony Lingard, said: "We're three up, mate."

It was down to two after Lickliter made bogey there, and down to one when he bogeyed the par-3 17th.

With memories of Wiebe's collapse being whispered in the gallery, with the memory of Lickliter pulling out a driver after Mickelson drove into the trees in the playoff at Torrey Pines, the gallery was watchingto see what club Lickliter would pull from his bag on the tee of the 444-yard 18th hole.

Without hesitation, he went for the driver.

After a perfect drive of about 260 yards, Lickliter stopped momentarily with his caddie. First he grabbed a bottle of water and took a big swig. Then he pulled out a cigarette and started puffing away as he walked up the fairway. All that seemed to be missing was a blindfold.

Lickliter had 184 yards to the flag, a 7-iron in his hand and one thought in his head.

"I didn't look any other place except the pin," he said. "I wasn't looking two feet right. That's all I had in my head was hit it right at the pin. I was trying to make it easy by hitting it in there a foot. Didn't quite work out that way, but it worked."

The ball settled into a heavy patch of trampled grass where most players walk when exiting the green.

"Hogan said that's exactly where you never want to leave it because the grass is going away from the hole," said Lickliter. "It is just one of those lies where you hit it 100 percent. I hit it about 95 percent and you see where it went."

A couple of hundred yards away, on the practice tee, Henry was hitting balls in case there was a playoff.

"You can't control what other people do," said Henry, 26, who had missed the cut in eight of his first 12 tournaments. "You hate to see somebody lose a tournament. Obviously from my standpoint to have a chance to win, sure, I was obviously a little upset. But at the same time I never wish bad upon anybody."

After watching Lee Porter's 35-foot putt break sharply to the left before falling in for birdie, Lickliter set up to hit the biggest putt of his life. He remembered having a similar one at Avenel last year, when he finished tied for 56th, and missed it right.

"I knew it was going to break left [at the end]," he said.

It did, disappearing right into the heart of the cup. With it, Lickliter's reputation for doing wild and crazy things - including killing a 9-foot bear while on a hunting trip to Alaska last year with Fuzzy Zoeller - took a backseat to his new-found image as the PGA's latest first-time winner.

"Honestly, it was never about money," said Lickliter, whose career earnings jumped to more than $4 million with the win. "I was thinking about winning golf tournaments, winning PGA Tour events, when I was 14 years old. It was about having that trophy, having that crystal. Having the respect of your peers. It's a good feeling."

Even better than driving a Humvee up Magnolia Lane at Augusta National.

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