With a three-stroke turnaround on one hole, Dave Eichelberger made himself a champion.
Eichelberger emerged from a tight five-man race on the back nine today to win his first U.S. Senior Open and gain his first tournament victory of any kind in two years.
Despite landing in three bunkers, Eichelberger scrambled for a 4-under-par 68, his best round of the tournament. He finished at 7-under 281 at the Des Moines Golf and Country Club, where large crowds gathered each day to watch the first major tournament played in Iowa.
The victory was worth $315,000 for Eichelberger, whose best finish this year had been second at the Las Vegas Classic. His last victory had come in the 1997 Transamerica.
Ed Dougherty, the leader through the first three rounds, closed with a 72 to finish second at 4 under. Defending champion Hale Irwin, Gil Morgan and Joe Inman all finished 2 under.
The championship turned when Eichelberger gained three strokes on one hole. Tied with Dougherty for the lead at 7 under, Eichelberger birdied the par-5 15th while Dougherty double-bogeyed No. 14, a par 3.
Dougherty got into trouble when his 8-iron tee shot hit the front of the green and rolled off to the fringe. His chip left him 15 feet short, and he three-putted, his bogey putt from two feet spinning completely around the cup before coming to rest two inches away.
On the 15th, Eichelberger's second shot with a 3-wood hit to the right of the flag and rolled to the edge of the green. He chipped to within three feet and sank the easy putt to go 8 under and take command.
"I hit the best 3-wood I've ever hit in my life," Eichelberger said. "It was the solidest, absolutely perfect. I don't think I could ever hit one better ever again."
After he putted out, "I kind of felt like it was my tournament to win at that point," he said.
From then on, Eichelberger just had to avoid a major mistake, and he did. He hit into a bunker on the 17th but wasn't hurt by the bogey because Dougherty also bogeyed the hole.
Dougherty, who has yet to win on the Senior PGA Tour, became a popular figure during the tournament. His candid, self-deprecating manner made him a hit with the media, and his construction worker appearance -- burly forearms and barrel chest -- gave him the everyman look with which fans could identify.
He started out strong today and was in good shape when a birdie on No. 11 put him 7 under, one stroke ahead of Eichelberger. Eichelberger pulled even with a four-foot birdie putt on No. 12. Three holes later, he was in front for good.
Midway through the round, only two strokes separated the top five: Dougherty, Eichelberger, Irwin, Morgan and Bruce Summerhays. But all faltered down the stretch, leaving Eichelberger alone to collect the first-place check.
"I was my own worst enemy," Irwin said. "My concentration and focus was just not sharp. The middle holes just doomed me."
CAPTION: Dave Eichelberger rises head and shoulders above the field in winning his first U.S. Senior Open.