Senior PGA Championship
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Zoeller claims first win in 16 years

The drought is over for Fuzzy Zoeller -- and maybe it is for the Senior PGA Tour as well.

Zoeller made several daring escapes for par coming down the stretch to win the Senior PGA Championship on Sunday, his first victory since joining the senior tour earlier this year.

Zoeller closed with a 2-under-par 68 to finish at 2-under 278, two strokes better than third-round leader Bobby Wadkins and three-time Senior PGA Championship winner Hale Irwin.

The major championship victory might have given the senior circuit a major shot of adrenaline. Zoeller is seen as a savior for the Senior PGA Tour, which is begging for a character with some color to counteract declining TV ratings and sagging attendance.

Zoeller whistled as he walked from green to tee, talked to fans between shots, cracked wise with his playing partners and generally added some dash to a graying tour.

``I'm just one person. We're doing a lot of positives for the game of golf on the senior tour,'' Zoeller said. ``We don't want people to think we're clones. We want to show them we're human. I know I am.''

He collected $360,000 -- his largest check in 27 years as a pro.

The victory was Zoeller's first in any tournament since winning the Anheuser-Busch Classic 16 years ago on the PGA Tour. The 1979 Masters and 1984 U.S. Open were among his 10 tour victories, but he never won a PGA title, finishing second to Larry Nelson in the 1981 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club.

``I wasn't sure I'd ever win again,'' he said. ``Every time I got close, somebody seemed to play a little better.''

It wasn't his three final-round birdies that were most memorable.

At the par-4 13th, holding on to a one-shot lead over Wadkins, Zoeller drove into the shin-high rough lining the narrow fairways at Firestone Country Club. He was able to advance the ball to equally heavy rough closer to the green, then hit a wedge to 10 feet and made the par putt to retain the lead.

``I was seeing somebody doing his job,'' Wadkins said. ``He hit a bad tee shot (at 13) and then a bad second shot. He caught a good break when it hit the tree and came straight down into the lighter rough. Then he got up and down for par.

``Not having won for a while, it he makes double-bogey there, it's a different ballgame.''

Zoeller said the turning point of the round was the putt at 13.

``It seemed like every time I was out today, my putter saved me,'' he said. ``That putt at 13 was very crucial. Those are the things that happen when you win tournaments.''

On the next hole, his sand wedge saved him. Zoeller managed a par from the back bunker with a blast that came to a stop less than a foot from the cup.

He hit a 3-iron to 10 feet and two-putted for par at the par-3 15th while Wadkins was bogeying to expand the lead to two shots, then sidestepped more trouble at the signature 16th, the 635-yard ``Monster,'' salvaging par after his second shot ended up in the rough just short of the fairway bunker.

``The only time I was nervous was the putt at 15,'' Zoeller said. ``I screeched a 3-iron back there. After I hit the putt at 15, I was fine. I knew that was a very, very big putt. That made it a heck of a lot easier on me the rest of the way.''

Zoeller continued to walk a tightrope on 17, driving into the deep rough right of the fairway with large trees blocking his route to the pin on the par-4. He hit a low screamer to the left of the pin and into more of the gnarly rough, chipped to 8 feet and rolled in the par putt.

``Fuzzy's a competitor,'' Wadkins said. ``He's got no quit in him.''

He got to enjoy 18 and flash that trademark grin.

Zoeller drove into the fairway and hit his approach to 10 feet -- raising his arms in celebration while a large gallery cheered wildly. He two-putted for par, waved to the crowd and then hugged his mother who was standing near the back of the green.

``I love doing battle with these guys,'' Zoeller said.

Irwin, winner of the 1996, 1997 and 1998 Senior PGA Championships, also shot a final-round 68 and tied Wadkins for second at even-par 280.

Wadkins finished with a 71 that included seven pars, six bogeys and five birdies. On the front side he bogeyed all the odd-numbered holes with three birdies and a par on the evens.

``The first nine was probably the weirdest nine holes since I've been on the senior tour,'' Wadkins said.

Jim Thorpe, winner of the year's first senior major, The Countrywide Tradition, closed with a 69 to share fourth place with former club pro Roy Vucinich, who shot a final-round 71 to also reach 281.

At 283 were Nelson, second-round leader Wayne Levi, Bruce Fleisher and Gil Morgan. Nelson stayed even with Zoeller or was on his heels all day until 14 when he double-bogeyed after catching a bad lie in a trap that had not been properly raked.

``Is that what it's been?'' Zoeller asked in mock surprise when told he had not won since 1986. ``It's been 16 years, but in my mind I knew I still had it. I knew I could do it.''

 

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