Dave Hill was second, still at 13 under, and Larry Hinson had moved up to third. Hinson's a young boy whose left arm is shorter than his right as the result of polio. He started today at eight under, but by the time I'd finished nine holes he'd finished 13 and had moved up to 12 under.
On the 10th hole I hit a good drive down the middle of the fairway and—I feel like a man describing his own execution—when I reached the ball I found it sitting in a little hole full of clover. It was worse than being in the rough. I was 175 yards from the green, and I had absolutely no idea what the ball would do when I hit it. I guessed it would fly out of the clover, so I took a six-iron. I usually hit a six-iron about 160 yards. I figured that even if the ball flew, I'd come up a bit short of the pin, in good position. I hit the ball right toward the stick, right at the stick, right over the stick. I went way over the green, almost into a creek. I'd hit the six-iron at least 190 yards, and it just about broke my heart. I wedged back up and left myself an eight-foot putt for my par. The putt stopped on the lip. I had a bogey, and I'd lost my one-stroke lead. I almost got sick to my stomach.
But I made up my mind I wasn't going to quit without a fight. On the next hole, a long par-5, I sank an eight-footer for a birdie, and then when I parred five holes in a row I was back in front. I was 14 under, and Larry Hinson was in the clubhouse at 13 under. Hill had slipped out of contention. All I had to do was par the last two holes for my first tournament victory in two years. I was a cinch. I'd bogeyed only one of my previous 52 holes.
I took a three-iron on the 17th, a par-3, and, instead of going for the pin, I safely favored the center of the green. I made the green but left myself a long putt, maybe 40 or 50 feet. I stroked it just right. The ball hit the hole dead in the center, jumped out and rolled 18 inches behind the cup. I marked my ball, replaced it, lined it up from every angle, took my stance, took my grip, took my time, didn't hurry it, didn't jump at it, didn't try to steal anything—and the next thing I knew, the ball was past the hole. I'd missed another 18-inch putt. I wanted to jump in my car and leave. I didn't want to play the last hole.
Now I needed a birdie on the 18th. I hit a real good drive and then a seven-iron 15 feet from the hole. So I had a good chance to win right there. I hit probably the best putt I've made in two years. It caught the inside of the cup on the left, caromed to the back and popped out two inches behind the hole.
I tapped in my two-incher, and Larry Hinson, whose caddie wore No. 1 on his back all week, and Frank Beard, whose caddie wore No. 13, went back to the 15th hole—for the benefit of the TV cameras—and started a playoff. I wasn't nervous. I was dejected. I kept telling myself that I shouldn't be in a playoff, that I should have won the thing outright.
On the 15th, a par-5, Hinson hit his drive into the rough, then caught a tree with his second shot and bounced off into the rough again, behind a pair of cypress trees. He looked like he was dead, but he sliced his third shot onto the green and two-putted for a par without ever touching the fairway. I'd birdied the hole Thursday and Saturday, but I hacked my way to a par, too.
We both got routine pars on the 16th, then moved to the 17th, where I'd three-putted only an hour earlier. Larry put his tee shot on the edge of the green about 20 feet from the pin. I hooked my shot onto the fringe, about 25 feet from the cup. I hit first, trying to chip the ball in, and I was a little strong. My ball rolled four or five feet past the hole. Hinson putted up to within a foot of the cup, a tap-in.
That was it. I missed my putt, he made his and it was all over. I handed the tournament to Larry Hinson on a silver platter, a gift from Frank Beard.
The only way I could possibly lose today was to give it away, and I did it. I had everything going for me—good course, good weather, good caddie—and I blew it. I've got no excuses. Judging from the past two weeks, the biggest weakness in my game right now is 18-inch putts.