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Skinner finishes as top club pro in Senior PGA

Photo by John Millikan

Photo by John Millikan

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Tom Watson, winner of Sunday's Senior PGA Championship, put his arm around Sonny Skinner and told Skinner he should be proud of himself.

Skinner, the pro at Albany's River Pointe Golf Club, shot a final-round 73 to finish as the tournament's low club pro at 6-over.

For Skinner, that moment with Watson was a "dream come true."

"(Watson) said to me, 'Hey Sonny boy. You were low club pro; way to go man,'" Skinner said by telephone Sunday from Louisville, Ky.

Skinner was honored right alongside Watson after the conclusion of the 72nd Senior PGA Championship.

Post-round interviews and receptions were nothing new for Watson, who closed with a 2-under 70 to finish at 10-under and capture his 14th career major.

And Skinner, who was awarded $6,000 for finishing tied for 45th, was happy to go along for the ride.

"I have been drinking champagne and doing interviews like I won the thing," said Skinner, who edged club pro Lee Rinker from West Palm Beach, Fla. by three strokes.

"Just being here and having this oppurtunity was pretty cool."

Skinner entered the final round four shots behind club pro Jim Woodward, who fell apart with a final-round 82, finishing five shots behind Skinner.

Skinner did anything but fall apart after making it to the final day in a major championship for the first time in his career.

He birdied two of his first four holes Sunday and stayed 2-under par for the first eight holes.

"It started clicking on the driving range," he said. "I started hitting the ball solid. I hit the first tee shot really good. And then the hole that I had been hitting a five iron at, I had an eight iron in my hands. And I hit it right at the stick."

Skinner bogeyed the par-4 ninth before rattling off seven pars in a row.

But as the pressure of finishing as the low club pro weighed on Skinner, he said he began to get distracted.

"Even though I have played a lot of golf in my days and I know to play it one shot at a time, your mind wonders to what the other guys are doing," Skinner said.

Whether it was nerves or excitement, the situation got the best of Skinner, who bogeyed the final two holes.

On No. 18, Skinner's second shot went into the green-side bunker, causing him to commit his third bogey of the day.

Hours later, Watson hit a shot into that same bunker during a sudden-death playoff with David Eger, and Skinner said he found himself rooting for one of his childhood heroes.

"Tom Watson was one of those players that I had a picture of hanging in my home growing up; he was the guy I always pulled for," Skinner said. "And I was pulling for him today."

Watson summoned up some of his old major magic, going up-and-down on the first playoff hole to beat Eger.

The 61-year-old Watson, down a shot with four holes left in regulation, became the oldest player to win a major since the senior tour was created in 1980.

He also became the second-oldest winner of the Senior PGA, behind only Jock Hutchison who was 62 in 1947.

"If this is the last tournament I ever win, it's not a bad one," Watson said. "I'm kind of on borrowed time out here at 61."

Watson became the third-oldest winner of a Champions Tour event. The victory came 10 years, 2 days after he won his other Senior PGA Championship at Ridgewood Country Club in 2001.

Watson may be well past his prime, but there have been very few players in history as good at sealing the deal with the outcome teetering on the brink.

Few realize that more than Eger, who worked closely with Watson and the other giants of the game in the 1980s and 1990s as a rules official.

"I watched a lot of Trevino, Watson, Irwin -- a lot of great players from the golf cart," he said. "And I got to really appreciate just how good they were -- and they still are."

Both Eger and Watson missed short birdie putts on the 72nd green that would have won for either in regulation, Eger pulling a 6-footer and Watson pushing one from 4 feet.

Watson went for the green with his rescue-club second shot on the playoff hole, the 18th, but it came up short and in the deep and gaping bunker that fronts the green.

"If it went into the bunker, that was just where I wanted to be," he said.

Eger caught a bad break when his drive came to rest in a grassy finger on the edge of a large bunker along the left side of the fairway. He hit a layup and then a wedge to 10 feet, but missed the birdie attempt.

"I hit a pretty good third shot up there," Eger said. "I thought I hit a really good putt. It just was not good enough."

Taking little time after blasting out of the sand to 3 feet, Watson calmly stroked in the winner while the large gallery at Valhalla Golf Club cheered and applauded.

Kiyoshi Murota, who had at least a share of the lead after each of the first three rounds, closed with a 72 and was alone in third, a shot out of the playoff.

He had promised he would play "Murota golf" in the final round.

"I played my Murota golf to the best of my ability," he said through an interpreter. "However, my putting left something to be desired."

Five days before he turns 66, four-time Senior PGA winner Hale Irwin had a double bogey and two bogeys in a 73 that left him at 8 under.

Eduardo Romero (68), the benefactor of a lucky bounce off the rocks that turned a bogey into a birdie at the 13th hole, and Peter Senior (69) were at 7 under. Nick Price shot a 72 and to finish another stroke back.

The 59-year-old Eger has played the Champions Tour full-time for a decade. But he's perhaps best known as a top rules official for the PGA Tour and U.S. Golf Association from 1982-95. He never finished better than a tie for fifth in 75 PGA Tour starts between 1979 and 1981. He regained his amateur status and was a three-time Walker Cupper during his days as a golf administrator. Since turning pro at 50, he has won four times on the Champions Tour, including this year's Liberty Mutual Legends.

The leader changed every few minutes in the final round.

Eger grabbed the top spot by rolling in a short birdie putt at the 15th. But he turned right around and gave it back on the next hole when his approach came up short of the green and he made bogey.

An instant later, Watson stroked in an 18-footer for birdie from the first cut behind the 15th green go up by a shot.

Eger responded with a 7-foot birdie putt at the uphill 16th to even things up once again.

After first Eger and then Watson missed easy birdie putts that would have given them a win, they headed for the extra hole.

Watson seemed stupefied to find himself with the crystal trophy and the $360,000 first-place check at the end.

"Wow. Winning again at 61," he said, shaking his head. "I don't think it's an age thing but, God, I've been out here a long time."

And he's been winning all along.