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Former President George Bush, who is a local resident, drew a standing ovation as he walked through the stands behind the 18th green last Thursday during the first round of the Shell Houston Open. Patrick Burke, a 35-year-old PGA Tour journeyman, was approaching the last green just as the applause began. He spotted Bush, saw the crowd rise, took off his hat and waved as if the cheers were for him. "I can't believe you did that," said fellow Tour player Fred Funk after he had stopped laughing.
Just kidding, Mr. President. But with that one silly gesture, Burke captured the essence of last week's Tour stop at the TPC at the Woodlands. Phil Blackmar was Mr. I Can't Believe You Did That. For starters, he won, something he hadn't done since 1988, the year Bush was elected president. Then there was all the dumb stuff he got away with. He whiffed on one chip, bounced another into a lake, hit a drive out of bounds and had to take an unplayable lie after mashing a three-wood shot into some underbrush while trying to reach a par-5 in two.
Blackmar also did some good stuff. On the second hole of the tournament, his Speed Racer chip slammed the pin and dived into the cup for a birdie. "Nice shot, Shaquille," deadpanned Larry Rinker, with whom he was paired. (The following day, on the same hole, Rinker sank his approach shot for an eagle and got the Shaq back from Blackmar.) On the next hole Blackmar pulled the pin before chipping in for birdie. In the second round he chipped in for eagle on the par-5 13th.
The victory was the third of Blackmar's 14-year Tour career. All three have come in playoffs and in all three Blackmar made a birdie on the first extra hole. Probably the Tour's most serious fisherman, and at 6'7" perhaps the tallest player ever to win a Tour event, Blackmar holed a 12-foot putt to beat Jodie Mudd and Dan Pohl in the 1985 Greater Hartford Open. He sank a 50-footer on the 18th to tie Payne Stewart in the 1988 Provident Classic in Hixson, Tenn., then made a 25-footer to beat him. This time he squeezed in a five-foot par putt at the 72nd hole to tie Kevin Sutherland, then drained the winner from almost the same spot a few minutes later. "It's incredible," said Blackmar, a 39-year-old Texan who lives in Corpus Christi. "All I can say is dreams can come true."
Lately, those dreams have been small ones. His game was on the rocks late in '94. "I beat myself up mentally and got to the point I couldn't break an egg," says Blackmar. "All year I made just three or four cuts [actually five in 30 events] and only $28,000. I thought I was pretty much done and didn't want to play. For a year and a half all I thought about was, What else can I do for a living? But I didn't find anything that was as good as golf. The Tour is like having a chance to win the lottery every week, and there are only 156 tickets."
So despite losing his Tour card at the end of '94, Blackmar decided to stick to what he knows best. First he worked on his swing with instructor Jim Flick. Then he entered the qualifying school. In the first stage he was seven shots over the cut line through 14 holes of the third round when he sank a 30-foot birdie putt, holed a seven-iron from the fairway for eagle, parred the next and birdied the last. The next day Blackmar shot six under to easily advance. "Why these things happen, who's to say?" he asks. In the final stage Blackmar was on the cut line with six holes to play but birdied twice to earn his card. He barely kept it in '95, pulling out a fourth-place finish in the last month of the season, at the Las Vegas Invitational, to remain exempt by finishing 121st on the money list. He was only slightly better in 1996, with three top-10 finishes in 28 events and a 96th-place showing.
Going into Houston this year, Blackmar had been no better, stuck again in 96th place, with $78,432 in earnings in 10 events. But Houston is a good event at which to get well. The tournament is stuck between the Masters and the U.S. Open, in that no-fly zone where the top guns, not yet ready to gear up for the Open, take a break. Seventeen of the world's 20 top-ranked players skipped the event. Only 16 of the top 50 played. But on Tour, one man's weak field is another's opportunity.
A few familiar faces showed up. Fred Couples, whose father, Tom, is undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia, was tied for sixth going into the final round but shot 42 on the front nine. Three-time champion Curtis Strange started fast with a 67 but closed with an 82 that could have been really ugly had he not eagled the par-5 15th. Former Ryder Cup captain Lanny Wadkins, finally recovered from a severe case of bronchitis, made four straight birdies near the end of his round on Sunday to close with a 67 and a tie for sixth, only his third top-10 finish since 1994. During the proam, Steve Elkington, a Houston resident and the Tour's leading money winner this season, aced the 196-yard 8th hole, which has a recently redesigned green. "Now it's too easy," joked Elkington, who rushed up the leader board with a final-round 65 to finish third, two strokes behind Blackmar and Sutherland.
The player most in demand, Tiger Woods, wasn't there, although he created some pre-tournament buzz. When his handlers at IMG became concerned that Woods might get bored with a month off after winning the Masters, they booked him a suite at the Woodlands. That prompted a flurry of rumors, ticket sales and a futile Tiger watch.
The course's greens, rebuilt to USGA specifications after last year's tournament, were also a disappointment. Tour player Jeff Maggert, who lives at the Woodlands, and local golf course architect Carlton Gipson drew good reviews for the redesign work they did, but a rough winter impeded the growth of the new grass. The unevenness of the greens partly explained why the winner's total of 12 under par was the highest on the Tour this year. "Yes, the greens are spotty," said David Ogrin, who finished eighth. "You can't scold babies for acting up. The grass and these greens are just babies."