Justin Leonard won in spite of himself Sunday at Hilton Head, S.C., making nary a birdie in capturing the WorldCom Classic.
Leonard made 16 pars and two bogeys in a round of 2-over 73. Still, he finished at 14-under-par 268, one shot clear of Heath Slocum (70). He also matched his largest career paycheck with a first-place prize of $720,000.
'I didn't feel like I've been (among the top players) the last couple of years,' said Leonard, who started the week 40th in the Official World Golf Ranking. 'This is certianly a step in the right direction.'
The win was particularly surprising considering Leonard had never finished inside the top 30 in six prior starts in this event.
'It means quite a bit - the changes I've made with my golf game are beginning to payoff,' he said.
A week removed from Tiger Woods baffling victory over five of top-ranked players in the world at the Masters Tournament, Leonard took a three-stroke lead into the final round at the Harbour Town Golf Links.
Cameron Beckman was his closest pursuer, with Slocum and Phil Mickelson four back.
Mickelson made only one birdie and three bogeys over his first nine holes Sunday. And thanks to a couple of late birdies, he was able to sneak into solo third place, at 12-under, with a round of even-par 71. It marked the fourth time in his last five starts that the left-hander has finished third.
Beckman fared far worse, recording two double bogeys and a triple. He finished with a 78 and plummeted into a tie for 19th.
Sunday proved to be a two-man race; actually, it was more like a two-man power walk.
Leonard, who, incidentally, completed a marathon late last year, parred each of his first 12 holes to maintain a three-stroke advantage. And though it was monotonous on the scorecard, it became more adventurous as the round extended.
The Texan made a 10-foot par putt at the seventh, a 12-footer for par at the 10th and a 30-foot save at the 11th. After making the bomb at No. 11, Leonard tipped his cap, looked skyward and mouthed, Thank you.
It was even more appreciated as Slocum stuffed his approach shot on the par-4 12th to six inches and tapped in for birdie to get within two shots, at 14-under.
Following a 12th successive par, Leonard found trouble off the tee at the par-4 13th. He clubbed a 3-wood way right, and was forced to pitch out. His third shot landed pin high, but in the second cut of greenside fringe. He failed to chip in, thus snapping himself out of pardom.
Leonards dropped shot, plus a 25-foot birdie by Slocum from off the green at the par-3 14th, equaled a tie at the top of the leaderboard, at 15-under-par.
Slocum then found himself in sole possession of the lead after an inexplicable hiccup by Leonard at No. 14. Having missed the green left with a 6-iron, Leonard lipped out a 70-foot chip shot. A foot and a half from another par save, he never so much as touched the hole.
'I was mad at myself when I missed that putt,' Leonard said.
Leonard snapped his two-hole bogey streak with a successful up-and-down at the par-5 15th ' after missing the green on his third shot from just 93 yards.
The next hole, however, resolved the tournament.
Slocum hit his tee shot at the 395-yard par-4 16th into the left waste bunker. His second shot landed in the greenside sand, 15 yards short of the putting surface. With little green to work with, he blasted his bunker shot some 50 feet past the flag, from where he three-putted for a double-bogey-6.
'Except for one hole, on 16, I played extremely well,' Slocum said after his career best PGA Tour finish. 'I'm pleased with how I played.'
Leonard, watching Slocum disintegrate from the fairway, had a chance to take a two-shot advantage with two holes to play, but failed to post his first birdie of the day when he missed a 10-foot putt at 16.
It didnt matter.
Leonard parred his final two holes to win his first tour title since his successful defense of the Texas Open a year ago.
Not that it was easy, of course. After a routine, two-putt par at the par-3 17th, he missed the green right at the par-4 finishing hole. Using his putter from the fringe, he nestled his first putt a couple of feet from the hole, and found the bottom of the cup with his second.
For the round, Leonard hit only six greens and took 25 putts.
'I'll learn more from today from shooting a 73 and winning by one stroke than by shooting a 68 and winning,' he said. 'I'll take more positives out of the win, that I gutted it out. I played some ugly golf and got it done.'
Full-field scores from the WorldCom Classic