Hamilton On the Fast Track

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04 Honda ClassicPALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Three months ago, Todd Hamilton headed to California for his eighth attempt at PGA Tour qualifying school. Now he's on the fast track to Augusta National.
 
His fortunes turned just as quickly Sunday in the Honda Classic.
 
Having squandered a four-shot lead, Hamilton walked to the 17th tee and saw that Davis Love III, one of golf's premier players, was one stroke ahead of him and finished with his round of 69 on a blustery day at Mirasol.
 
'I knew I had to at least make one birdie to have a chance,' Hamilton said.
 
No one could have guessed what followed.
 
In a dramatic finish to a journey that lasted 17 years, Hamilton birdied the final two holes, stuffing an 8-iron into 4 feet on No. 18 for a one-stroke victory.
 
'Maybe it was my turn to win,' Hamilton said.
 
He certainly paid his dues.
 
Hamilton, an All-American at Oklahoma who was once paired with Love (North Carolina) during a college tournament, always believed he had the talent to play on the PGA Tour.
 
He never realized how long it would take him, or where the road would lead -- first Canada, then the PGA Tour's minor leagues, and then to all parts of the globe. He played the Asian Tour five years and did well enough to make it on the Japanese tour, where he won six times.
 
Married with three young children, he spent the last 12 years playing in obscurity in the Far East.
 
'But this is the place,' he said. 'If you want to achieve, and you want to feel like you've accomplished something great, this is the place to do it right here.'
 
Hamilton, who didn't make a birdie in the final round until the last two holes, closed with a 2-over 72. It was the second time this year the winner failed to break par in the last round. John Daly had a 75 at Torrey Pines and won in a three-man playoff.
 
'He finished like a true champion and birdied those last two holes when he knew he had to do it,' Love said. 'It's a great, great story. I know he's worked long and hard for it.'
 
Hamilton, a 38-year-old rookie, finished at 12-under 276 and earned $900,000, about as much as his best season in Japan, and earned an exemption on the PGA Tour through the 2006 season.
 
The perks don't stop there.
 
At No. 96 in the world going into the Honda Classic, he should easily move into the top 50 in the world ranking Monday, high enough to qualify for the Masters when the deadline falls in two weeks.
 
'That would be special,' Hamilton said softly.
 
Love lost a final-round lead last year to Justin Leonard. This time, Love applied pressure by playing mistake-free down the stretch, taking the lead with a great lag putt from a deep swale off the 17th green. And he looked like a winner when he saved par with a 6-foot putt on the 18th.
 
Hamilton had not made a birdie throughout the gusty day at Mirasol, and twice had to make tough par saves just to keep his slim hopes alive.
 
'He gave everyone a chance,' Love said. 'And then he took it away from us.'
 
Hamilton split the middle of the 18th fairway, and had 162 yards to a front pin. Nervously wiping the grip of his 8-iron, the ball took dead aim at the flag and stopped 4 feet behind the hole.
 
'I was just trying to get to the front third of the green and give myself a chance,' Hamilton said. 'When I heard the people hollering, I knew it was close.'
 
The only battle left was his emotions.
 
'I bit my lip,' Hamilton said. 'I didn't realize my teeth were that sharp.'
 
Brian Bateman, who had never finished in the top 10 on the PGA Tour, had a share of the lead at 10 under when he finished with his 68. He wound up third and earned $340,000.
 
Kevin Na, at 20 the youngest player on the PGA Tour, shot a 69 and tied for fourth with Robert Allenby (70), Woody Austin (70) and Fredrik Jacobson (73).
 
It was the second straight day Hamilton birdied the 18th.
 
His 15-foot putt on Saturday expanded his lead to four shots, and figured that might come in handy. This was only his 18th start on the PGA Tour, and 20 mph gusts made the lead seem even smaller.
 
Hamilton struggled early, shot 39 on the front and his lead was gone when he three-putted at No. 13.
 
'I would like to say I was setting myself up for a great comeback,' he said. 'I couldn't get the ball close to the hole. And if I did, I couldn't make a putt.'
 
Just when it looked like he would fall apart, Hamilton kept it together with a remarkable short game.
 
He left himself 50 feet from the hole on No. 14, but rolled in a 7-foot par putt. He missed the green well to the right on the par-3 15th, into a deep collection area some 80 feet from the cup, but knocked it up to 3 feet for another par that kept him in the game.
 
That set him up for a finish no one saw coming, and a victory that even Hamilton doubted.
 
'Until I got my tour card, I always doubted something like this would happen,' he said. 'I don't think it's sunk in.'
 
Related Links:
  • Leaderboard - The Honda Classic
  • Full Coverage - The Honda Classic
     
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