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GOLF

Nick Watney rallies to win Buick Invitational

Watney, who started the final round five shots behind John Rollins, wins by making a birdie on the last hole.

February 09, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

LA JOLLA — Somebody not named Eldrick won at Torrey Pines on Sunday with a birdie on No. 18 and an oddly truncated fist pump that appeared to be some sort of half fist pump or two-fifths fist pump or three-eighths fist pump.

It lacked the multiple-pump theatrics that have rocked these South Course grounds around Eldrick T. Woods -- winner of the previous four Buick Invitationals plus the 2008 U.S. Open here before knee surgery's intrusion -- but you can forgive Nick Watney his fist-pump bashfulness.

"I was almost in a trance," he said.

This made sense, given that the Fresno State-trained Watney, 27, never led alone in the 2009 Buick Invitational until just after the 72nd hole, in that he trailed John Rollins by five shots and Camilo Villegas by two Sunday morning, in that he trailed Rollins by four with 11 holes left and by three with five left Sunday afternoon.

Yeah, and he curled in a dreamlike 39-footer for birdie on par-three No. 16, and scorched a stupor of a hybrid onto the green on par-five No. 18 for his 11-under-par 277 that won by one.

Yeah, and if you want to talk trances, this gangly and blue-eyed and largely anonymous sort, having won in New Orleans in 2007, just clambered into the 20-something stratosphere, joining such hallowed names as Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Anthony Kim and Villegas as men in their 20s who have won multiple times on the PGA Tour.

"He is very shy," his uncle and 30-year Fresno State coach, college Hall of Fame member Mike Watney, said by telephone from Fresno. "And he's truly a nice guy."

In fact, when he lived with his aunt and uncle two years during college, "We were just amazed at how nice he was. We often joked we wished our kids were as nice as he was."

It's just that nobody much noticed him through the week as Villegas soared with a 63 on Thursday, Rollins nibbled with a 64 on Friday and Rollins passed Villegas with a 70 to the latter's 74 on a rugged Saturday. Yet through all those days and rains and grimaces from 156 players, Watney never did three-putt and never would.

That's something, given putting's meanness toward him in the past.

Raised in little Dixon between Sacramento and Vacaville, Watney remained pretty much a baseball kid until the ancient golf-starting age of 13, before his uncle took him to play in Fresno and he watched his older cousin Josh win at Pebble Beach.

By the time he reached Fresno State, Mike Watney said, "He could hit the ball far, but was very wild. And he was not a very good putter. At that time, my wife likes to remind me, she hated to watch him putt because he three-putted so often."

To become the Western Athletic Conference's freshman of the year and three-time player of the year, he worked like mad, a knack he replicated last off-season when he found his putting insufficient and toiled in Las Vegas with the guru Butch Harmon.

By Sunday, Watney started as The Other Guy in the group at seven under par with the 33-year-old Rollins at 12 under and the 27-year-old sensation Villegas at nine under, ideal for seeing those two repeatedly try to escape trouble as Watney hummed to a 68.

Luke Donald and Lucas Glover nibbled but failed to menace, and when Rollins divined a 21-foot eagle on No. 13 to stretch his lead to three, the uncle/coach in his Fresno den reckoned he'd win, even as the nephew "heard" the words, "It's never easy," his uncle's much-repeated credo.

Rollins bogeyed No. 14 to pare the lead to two over both playing partners, and by the time he burrowed in sand beside the No. 16 green to ensure bogey -- "as bad a plugged lie as I've had in a while," he said -- and Watney aimed his 39-footer that broke left then nudged itself rightward into the front door, a certain coach in Fresno had stood up for the duration.

Villegas, who would shoot 72, fiddled with a drop on the cart path off No. 17 before a bogey, and Watney and Rollins approached No. 18 tied at 10-under. Both found fairway, but from there Rollins found sand and the long hitter Watney grittily slammed it to the back of the green.

That meant Rollins would barely miss a 12-foot birdie putt and say, "I still made $574,000; life isn't too bad," while Watney would exhale heavily after "one of the tougher two-putts I've ever had," putting from 60 feet to three and from three to fist pump.

Well, to abridged fist pump.

"Well, to be honest with you, I'd like to imitate pretty much everything Tiger does," he said with his big grin. "But that was not planned at all. I was more worried about the three-footer. I mean, I just hope the fist pump looked halfway decent."

--

chuck.culpepper@yahoo.com

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