Shigeki saves the day

Saturday, May 11th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

IRVING, Texas (AP) _ Instead of that happy-go-lucky smile, Shigeki Maruyama spent most of the time sticking out his tongue in mock relief after escaping trouble with delicate chips and clutch putts in the Byron Nelson Classic.

He had reason to be concerned.

Tiger Woods staged another Sunday charge that ultimately fell short. Then, Maruyama had to watch another late rally from an unlikely source in the group ahead, rookie Ben Crane, who followed an eagle with a curling 21-foot birdie putt on No. 17.

``I almost fainted when I saw that,'' Maruyama said.

The Japanese star known as the ``Smilin' Assassin'' managed to hold it together Sunday, closing with a 2-under 68 for a two-stroke victory over Crane, the second straight week an Asian player has won on the PGA Tour.

The smiles returned after his fourth up-and-down on the back nine, after barely clearing the water. He chipped to 4 feet to keep his two-shot margin.

Maruyama capped off his second PGA Tour victory with a routine par on the final hole, thrust his arms in the air and bowed to tournament host Byron Nelson when he walked to the scoring trailer.

``Nobody ever played golf as a professional who smiles as much as Shigeki does,'' Nelson said. ``I'm extremely happy to have him as our champion.''

A week after K.J. Choi became the first South Korean winner in tour history at New Orleans, Maruyama finished at 14-under 266 and became the first Asian with multiple tour victories. He also won last year in the Greater Milwaukee Open to become the first Japanese player to win on the mainland.

This victory was much more impressive, coming against a field that boasted eight of the top 10 players. He earned $864,000, and a free pass into the U.S. Open.

``This makes me very pleased,'' Maruyama said. ``I'm still looking for higher achievements. Although I am smiling a lot, that doesn't mean my heart is smiling. Japanese people tend to be very humble. I'm hiding the real goal in the heart.''

Crane felt just as satisfied.

An eagle-birdie-par finish put him in second place and earned him $518,000, enough to secure his card for next year. Better yet, Crane is getting married on Saturday.

``I couldn't be more thrilled,'' he said.

The 26-year-old from Portland delighted the crowd during a remarkable run at the end of his round, which featured a 20-foot eagle putt from the fringe on No. 16, his birdie on the par-3 17th and a smart move on the final hole.

After driving into the trees, he decided to pitch out, then hit his approach to 3 feet to save his par.

``I just wanted to do my best,'' said Crane, who had missed the cut in his last five tournaments dating to the Honda Classic in early March. ``I didn't know if that would mean a victory or fifth place.''

Woods made three straight birdies down the stretch and closed with a 65 to finish at 10-under 270, which at the time put him three strokes out of the lead.

Woods was in the locker room with his tennis shoes on when he was asked when he was leaving for Germany, where he is defending a title this week.

``As soon as Shigeki hits his tee shot on 17,'' Woods said.

Told Maruyama already had gone to 14 under, Woods smiled and said, ``I'm outta here.''

Maruyama started the final round with a three-stroke lead, and it never got closer than two shots throughout a muggy afternoon in which the wind died over the final nine holes. That didn't mean it was easy.

``There's so many good players,'' he said. ``In a way, I was under so much pressure.''

After hitting out of a fairway bunker to 3 feet on No. 10 for birdie to restore his three-stroke lead, Maruyama pulled his next approach into the water. His feet pressed close to the bricks framing the pond, he pitched it to 4 feet and saved bogey.

Maruyama missed the next green on the short side, leaving him little room between the edge of the green and the hole, but made an 18-foot par save. He also saved par from 9 feet on No. 14 after coming up short.

``My putting, I did a good job,'' he said. ``That led me to the winning stage.''

Maruyama had only 25 putts on Sunday, and 106 for the tournament.

PGA champion David Toms closed with a 66 to tie for fourth at 272 with Ernie Els, who had a hole-in-one on No. 13 but couldn't get any closer the rest of the way.

Woods had closed with a 63 each of the past two years at the Nelson Classic, and found himself in that position again Sunday.

Once again, the charge came too late and was not enough.

With birdies on two of the first three holes, and a 10-foot par save in between, Woods was poised to get close to Maruyama when he hit 6-iron for his second shot into the par-5 seventh hole. The ball landed on the ridge, hopped up, then rolled into a bunker. Another yard and it might have been a tap-in eagle. Instead, he missed a 4-foot birdie putt.

He followed that by playing the wrong shot into No. 8 and taking bogey, and the rally at the end _ starting with a 45-foot birdie putt from the fringe on No. 14 _ was too late.

``I've gotten better every day,'' Woods said, who started the week with a 71 and was in a tie for 96th. ``That's what you want to see when you take some time off.''