Mark McCumber won $72,000 in the Doral-Eastern Open yesterday, but he'll probably spend it all over the years on Valium to fight nightmares he'll get from recalling this victory.

He escaped by a stroke; he's lucky he didn't have one.

If it weren't for the kindness of a stranger -- a fuzzily identified crowd marshal named "Pepe" -- McCumber might still be wandering in the Blue Monster's rough tonight, wondering whether it was a tall palm tree or a mischievous small boy who stole his ball and his victory.

Every golfer, as the final seconds of his five-minute lost ball search tick away, has heard the sweetest words in his sport: "Anybody 'round here playin' a Pro Staff 3?"

That's what Pepe said to McCumber.

He might as well have given a nitro tablet to a cardiac victim for all the transformation that came over McCumber.

"What was the last hole like?" mused McCumber, after his 71 -- 284 score edged Tom Kite by a stroke. "It was like driving with your wife and kids in the car, falling asleep at the wheel and suddenly waking up finding yourself skidding sideways into a ditch . . . It's total panic, then incredible relief."

Are we talking about golf?

Yes, goofy golf gone bananas.

Twice in his life McCumber has come to this 72nd hole with a two-shot lead, first in 1979, then at sundown yesterday. Twice he's gambled on bizarre strategic tactics to avoid the terrors of perhaps golf's most perilous closing hole.

And twice he's escaped with bogey, a victory and a tall tale that'll give him fodder for wild yarns, gray hairs and insomnia the rest of his life.

It all started quietly, like the eerie music in "Jaws." McCumber stepped to the last tee with a two-shot lead over Kite and three in hand on Jack Nicklaus. McCumber didn't want any excitement.

Gonna play it smart and dull.

How wrong can a guy be? By playing safe, he stumbled into a saga that left him using such phrases as "sheer panic" and "state of shock." Golf takes a lot of bum raps. The worst is that it's not exciting, not visceral enough. Tell McCumber.

The 34-year-old, whose winnings this season were $0.00 until yesterday, thought he'd finesse the 425-yard, water-locked, into-the-wind 18th hole when he deliberately blasted his final drive so far to the right that it almost reached the fairway of hole No. 1.

As the crowd gasped at what looked like a wild shot, McCumber muttered, "That's right where it was supposed to go, folks." And playing partner Nicklaus nodded his agreement with the tactic.

However, as McCumber approached his drive's landing area, madness set in.

"The ball's up in the top of that tree," said one marshal, as hundreds of fans rubbernecked like freeway fatality ghouls. "We heard it hit up there and nothing came down," another marshal said to PGA Tour official Slugger White.

McCumber blanched. Ball in tree would mean a stroke and distance and McCumber would be back on the tee.

"It's nowhere near here," bleated McCumber, suddenly a soprano. "I'll guarantee you it was 40 yards from here. I'm not kidding."

"You got five minutes," said White, visor low over eyes, in his best impartial tell-it-to-the-judge voice.

"I want to hear how they 'know' it's in the tree," McCumber said, "because I know it's nowhere near here."

Before McCumber could search anywhere, the crowd engulfed him. "Does this count on my (five-minute) time when I can't even move?" he implored.

Next, he asked for a ladder so his caddie could climb the tree and get at the truth. "I'm not climbing any tree," the caddie said. "I saw that ball and it's not around here."

As McCumber's eyes got wider, another fan volunteered that a kid had snatched up a ball and run toward the clubhouse in hopes, perhaps, of helping Nicklaus' chances.

"I like Jack Nicklaus too, but . . . " said McCumber, intending a little nervous joke. Instead, national television picked up the remark and McCumber spent part of his postvictory press conference apologizing for any accidental insult. "Hey, when I was a kid, I might have done something like that," he said.

He was getting so rattled that, he later said, "I thought of asked for a loudspeaker to ask for witnesses, but that was impossible."

Because of the huge crowd, he couldn't even get where he thought his ball might be. "Jack was the only one, like Moses, who could part the seas," McCumber said.

According to White, less than two minutes was left in the search time at this point and, in McCumber's words, "I was very aware that no one was looking for the ball where I thought it was."

No one except playing partner Peter Oosterhuis and that wandering marshal.

"Are you hitting a Pro Staff 3?" Pepe quietly asked McCumber.

"I knew it!" screamed the golfer. "I don't know if it was a 3 or a 1, but it had a pencil dot over the P (in "Pro").

"My adrenaline went right back up to the top of the chart," he said. "And it had been off the chart . . . I had kept my poise all day . . . but I was getting paranoid out there."

In 1979, he deliberately played his second shot into the grandstand, took a free drop, sculled his chip across the green and made an eight-foot putt to win. This time, he played back to the fairway, wedged up to 10 feet, then almost stubbed his putt.

"Jeez, I left myself 18 inches short and I'm glad I didn't have to wait. I just went up there and shook it in."

He had one final scare. Kite's 30-foot birdie putt for a tie at the 18th felt so good as it left his club that he thought for a second, "It's right in the jaws" of the hole.

But the ball stayed a half-inch too high. McCumber, who had trailed Kite by five shots at the sixth hole, and who'd needed to chip in for his birdies at the sixth and 16th holes, finally could scream, "All right!" and throw 9-year-old daughter Addison in the air and catch her.

It might be expected that the noble Pepe would stand with McCumber to accept the cash and crystal. However, on this day of so many false rumors, McCumber was misinformed that it was Oosterhuis who'd found his ball and that this fine Pepe person was just bearing a message.

Perhaps McCumber's search of the Blue Monster is not yet quite complete.

Where's Pepe? And what's the finder's fee for lost treasure, anyway?