There is a label of respect on the PGA tour that causes players to grind their teeth in frustration: "He's the best player out here who's never won a tournament."
For about a year, Keith Fergus has carried the tag like a dead weight. Three times last year, on his way to winning more than $119,000, he finished third, the last time in the U.S. Open. He came to the $350,000 Memorial Tournament this week 28th on the money list, having added a second place at Doral to his wallet and his frustrations.
Today, he rid himself of the label in superb fashion, conquering a course that made some of the game's best players look foolish.
On a day when Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite were undone by the dry, windy Muirfield Village Golf Club course, on a day when no one broke 70 and the field averaged 76, Fergus made just one bogey and shot 71. That gave him a 284 total, four under par. On a day when Tom Watson could do no better than 73, and the three 54-hole coleaders all game to grief, that was enough to make Fergus a winner for the first time in his four-year career.
Fergus, a 27-year-old Texan, took home $63,000 with his one-shot victory over playing partner Jack Renner, who also managed 71. Renner finished two shots ahead of Watson, who fell apart just when he looked ready to make his move, Tom Purtzer, who had 72, and George Archer and Craig Stadler, two of Saturday's coleaders, who shot 75.
Kite, the third leader, could do not better than 76. Nicklaus, who designed this fabulous course, closed within one shot of the lead at three under through 10 holes before falling to shoot 72 and finish at 289.
"There've been a lot of times when I wondered if all my work was worth it," said Fergus, who will take the next two weeks off and will miss the Kemper Open this week at Congressional Country Club."I was beginning to wonder if I would win. It bothers you some to hear the 'best player to never win' thing, but you have to pay your dues out here. I paid my dues, stayed close to the top. Today was my turn.
Fergus has a reputation as a good player on tough courses. Today, Muirfield Village was as tough as a course can be. The dry weather all week had left the already very fast greens brown and burnt. When the wind increased, par became an excellent score on any hole.
"Keith deserves congratulations just for surviving out there," said Renner, like Fergus one of the tour's bright young players at 24. "I still feel shell-shocked. That course was as brutal today as any I've seen. Keith just didn't make any mistakes."
Fergus started with a birde today, made seven straight pars, then took his only bogey at No. 9. It was the 12th, which Nicklaus designed to be like the 12th of Augusta -- gorgeous but treacherous with water on three sides of the green -- that proved curcial.
With the pin cut in the back right side of the green no more than 25 feet from the water, few players aimed for the stick. Twenty minutes before Fergus arrived there Nicklaus, who had charged into contention with a 32 on the front nine, had hit a seven-iron over the green to the left of the flag trying to avoid the water.
From there Nicklaus had an almost impossible chip. Hit it too strong and the ball would get wet, too weak and the ball would remain in the high grass. Nicklaus played weak, the ball popping into the air for a second, then landing in the grass and stopping. His second chip came up four feet short and the putt slid past.
In one moment the 158-yard monster had dropped Nicklaus from two shots off the lead to four.
By the time Fergus and Renner reached 12, Renner was leading at four under and Fergus was one shot back. Renner, after debating between a seven- and eight-iron, opted for the seven and knocked the ball over the green.
Fergus went with the eight and hit a fine shot, landing the ball left of the stick. It rolled down to six feet away. He knocked in the putt to go four under. Renner chipped to four feet, then pushed the putt for a bogey.
"Standing on the tee at 12, I would have taken three and run to the next tee with it," Fergus said. "That may have been as good a shot as I've ever hit in my life."
Renner got even again with a 20-footer at 13 and looked ready to lead when Fergus went over the green at 14. But Fergus chipped back to eight feet and made the putt. Renner three-putted.
From there they each made pars until 18 when both, playing away from the creek on the left side, drove in the right bunker. Renner hit first, whacking at a four-iron and miraculously landing on the green.
Now came Fergus. He knew a bogey would create a playoff. First he took out a seven-iron. Then, he changed to a six and, using the wind landed a high hook 30 feet from the pin.
"I was a little lucky because I had played a shot almost just like that at No. 1 yesterday," Fergus said. "I wanted to take a little sand and hit the ball high because I knew the wind would blow it in. I couldn't have asked for a better shot."
Both men two-putted from there, Fergus knocking in a two-footer to win although Kite, two groups behind, was just one shot back until he bunkered at 17 and took a double bogey.
"Keith deserved to win, shooting 71 out there," Watson said. "The course must have played three or four stokes tougher today than the first three days. The scores prove it."
Watson, who struggled with his swing all week, birdied two of the first five holes and was five under for the tournament, alone on top. But then holes Nos. 6 through 9, which cost him the tournament, got to him again. He bogeyed all but the seventh, meaning he played the four holes seven over par for the four days.
Watson was still hanging close when he chipped in from 60 feet at 14 after knocking a pitching wedge into the water approaching the tight green. But instead of using that for impetus, Watson knocked his tee shot into the woods at 15, missed a four-foot par putt and then did the same at 16 for another bogey.
"I just ran out of miracles," he said.
"I didn't hit the ball well all day but I was hanging in, getting up and down until those two putts at 15 and 16. Terrible putts. No excuses."
"We may have done the impossible: gotten the greens too fast," Nicklaus said.
Not as far as Fergus is concerned. He had 15 pars, no three-putts. He played today as he always has: consistently. This is a players who has made the cut 42 of the last 43 tournaments.
"I knew with the wind blowing there wouldn't be too many low scores," he said. "I just kept trying to make pars."
Those pars made him a winner today. Now the pros have to look for a new "best player to never win."