Inventive, brave and lucky, Lon Hinkle won the World Series of Golf today when he made a 35-foot downhill racer of a putt on the same 17th hole where his primary rival came to sandy grief.
With rounds of 67, 67, 71 and 67 for an eight-under-par 272 over a Firestone Country Club course made tame by softening rain, Hinkle won the $100,000 first prize by one stroke over Larry Nelson, Lee Trevino and Bill Rogers.
Tom Watson was two shots back, tied with Hale Irwin for fifth place, a stroke ahead of Tom Kite in this 38-man tournament that included someone named Hsu Chi-san (38th, 35 shots behind) but no one named Jack Nicklaus (who failed to meet any of the 18 qualifying standards).
From 35 feet past the 17th cup, only the brave struck putts firmly. It is downhill all the way. It is very fast. When Hinkle stood 35 feet away at 17, he was two strokes behind an ever-steady Nelson, who showed no signs of charity.
Bravely, Hinkle rapped the putt. If he were to catch Nelson, he would have to do it himself, expecting no help from the leader. Hinkle's down-hill racer reached the cup in a breath. It hit the back of the hole and fell in. Birdie at the 17th. One shot behind.
"If the hole hadn't gotten in the way," Hinkle said a half-hour later, "that putt could still be rolling out there."
If the gods of golf chose to send the big Texan a gift of luck for his bravery, they scolded Nelson the next minute. He hit a sad, weak eight-iron toward the 17th green. The ball buried in a trap at the front of the green. Worse than that, it buried on a downslope just over the front lip of the trap.
He had an impossible shot. Only 40 feet from the hole, he might as well have been 40 miles. His sand shot flew out on a line, as it had to, and stopped 70 feet past the cup. Then, sending his own downhill racer 15 feet past, Nelson three-putted for a double-bogey 6.
Suddenly, Hinkle was the leader by one stroke.
"All week I've hit an eight-iron to 17," Nelson said. "I just hit it a little bit fat this time and the ball buried in there. I had to move eight inches of sand just to get to the ball, and the ball was all the way through to the hard stuff. All I could do is hit it in the middle. That's the first time I've ever been in a situation where I could move the ball forward -- and still be dead."
Both Trevino and Nelson had a chance to tie Hinkle at the 18th. Nelson's 70-foot putt stopped a foot short, and Trevino ran a 20-footer three feet past. And the surprised Hinkle -- "I thought I needed another birdie at the 18th to win," he said after missing an eight-footer there -- accepted the trophy while carrying his 14-month-old daughter, Monique, in his arms.
Until today, Hinkle has been one of those anonymous guys who make lots of money while Nicklaus and Watson make all the history. Hinkle is 30 years old, 6 feet two and 220 pounds. All chubby cheeks, he could pass for a young Billy Casper. He has won two other tournaments and nearly $600,000 in seven years on tour, but he is best known for inspiring the Hinkle Spruce at this summer's U.S. Open.
There Hinkle devised a tee-shot shortcut that irritated Open officials. They thought to close the shortcut by planting a 35-foot tall spruce tree. One of the first-round leaders there, Hinkle finished 53rd -- but still using his shortcut.
Now Hinkle is famous in his own right, not only as a World Series winner but as the inventive fellow who intentionally skipped a ball across a pond to save a stroke -- which, of course, is the margin by which he won $100,000.
Using a six-iron to punch the ball low over a footbridge and under two trees, Hinkle intentionally hit a ball 30 yards into a pond in front of the 16th green here Saturday.
Well, not "Into." "Onto" is correct. The ball hit the water, skipped twice, crashed against the pond's bank and popped up onto the green, 20 feet from the cup. Hinkle two-putted for a par 5.
"Let's talk about that shot so maybe everybody will forget about the spruce tree," Hinkle said. "I really had no choice. It was either that or hit it away from the hole. The best I could do that way was a 6. But if I skip it across -- any good golfer could have done it, because you know a ball hit with backspin is going to skip on water -- I could make a 5."
Everything worked perfectly.
The ball skipped twice on the pond face.
"I was planning on just one skip," Kinkle said. "The second skip was welcomed."
After making a difficult 20-foot putt for a birdie at the 14th hole today, Nelson seemed a certain winner -- three shots ahead of everybody. By parring in, this month's Ryder Cup star would have won by two. Instead, Nelson missed a five-footer for par at 15 and double-bogeyed 17.
His main rivals seemed those in his threesome, Watson and Trevino. But Watson made three bogeys in the last five holes, and Trevino missed three makeable birdie putts at 16, 17 and 18.
That left victory available to anyone inventive enough to think of walking a ball on water and brave enough to crash a putt 35 feet over a cliff.