Fuzzy Zoeller strung together four birdies on the front nine today to shoot a 67 and earn a two-stroke victory over Tom Watson in the $500,000 Bay Hill Classic.
Zoeller, who started the day tied for the lead with Curtis Strange at five-under 208, was playing in his third tournament since undergoing back surgery Sept. 25. The U.S. Open champion rejoined the PGA Tour two weeks ago, finishing 46th in the Doral Open. Zoeller, 33, tied for 20th in last week's Honda Classic and today finished the rugged 7,103-yard Bay Hill course at nine-under 275 for his seventh Tour victory.
Watson couldn't break par in his final six holes and finished at 277 after a 67. Mark Lye was third at 278 after closing with rounds of 68 and 67.
Following several weeks in bed recuperating from his operation, Zoeller was able to walk with the aid of a cane. On Jan. 2, he swung a club for the first time since surgery, taking five swings with his wife's five-iron. A little more than a month later, he went to Florida to start serious practice. His first competitive round was a two-over-par 74 Feb. 21 in the Doral-Eastern Open.
"To be just three weeks out on the Tour and get a win is a great feeling," said Zoeller, who took a winner's check of $90,000. "I feel wonderful right now . . . I'm on cloud nine. Any time you beat these guys, it's exciting. I don't think you'll find four tougher finishing holes anywhere -- they'll bring out the man in you."
Zoeller, who followed rounds of 70 and 72 with a 66 Saturday, opened the final round with a birdie at No. 1 and also birdied the par-4 third hole. At the sixth hole, where Zoeller shot a double bogey-7 on Saturday, he had a birdie, and a birdie on No. 7 helped Zoeller make the turn at 32. On the back nine, Zoeller was a model of steadiness with nine pars.
Watson opened today's round with an eagle-3 at No. 1. Birdies at No. 6 and No. 8 dropped him to seven under, but a bogey-5 at No. 9 gave him a 33 on the front side. A birdie at 12 pulled Watson within two shots of Zoeller, but the winner of 31 PGA events never came any closer.
"I didn't have a real good shot at birdie over those final six holes," Watson said. "The closest I came to the pin was about 30 feet."
Hertz offered a $1 million bonus, split equally between the golfer and a charity to be designated, to the first player to shot a hole in one today on the 183-yard, par-3 17th. Jim Thorpe came the closest, putting his tee shot eight inches from the pin before settling for birdie.