WINNING makes Rachels revise theory that fourth place best finish possible

Monday, June 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Sammy Rachels always thought fourth place was the best finish in a golf tournament.

After finally winning a tournament, Rachels is happy to admit he was wrong.

``First is better,'' Rachels said after winning on tour for the first time at age 50. ``I just blew that philosophy out of the way. I had it for 30 years, and now it's gone.''

Rachels held off defending champion Hale Irwin by shooting the best round of his career with a 9-under-par 63 Sunday and winning the BellSouth Senior Classic by four strokes. He picked up the biggest check of his life at $240,000, which was more than he won in 10 years on the PGA Tour.

He joked that he expected the FBI to take him away for grabbing so much money. He turned serious and said he had realized a dream he first had at age 18.

``I kind of put it in the back of my mind for a number of years using that slightly defeatist philosophy that I developed,'' Rachels said.

That attitude combined with nerves to cause Rachels problems despite turning in 11 top 10 finishes on the PGA Tour from 1975-85. But after sharing the lead after each of the first two rounds, he told himself to just play well.

And he did just that.

Rachels had four eagles through 14 events, but had two Sunday with five birdies in a bogey-free final round and a 54-hole total 199. His previous low? A 64 in 1983.

Irwin couldn't keep pace even though he caught Rachels at 11 under on the front nine. The man who has won more Senior Tour titles than anyone else was trying to defend his title at the Springhouse Golf Club and win on his birthday for the first time ever.

But his closing 66 just wasn't enough.

``Sammy played well,'' Irwin said. ``I felt I beat the guys I needed to beat. He answered the challenge. My hat's off to him. It's a great win for him.''

Tom Kite (66) and Bruce Fleisher (66) tied for third at 204, while Gil Morgan (64) and Allen Doyle (68) tied for fifth at 205.

Rain delayed the final round for an hour and threatened to halt play repeatedly Sunday. Rachels ignored the distractions and broke a three-way tie for the lead by holing out from 65 yards with a lob wedge on the par-5 1st to move into the lead by himself. He was 11 under on the par-5s this weekend.

When Irwin tied him for the lead, Rachels responded with a birdie on No. 8. He put the tournament away after making the turn by holing out a chip shot from a greenside bunker for eagle on the par-5 10th and then birdied Nos. 11, 12 and 14.

Rachels couldn't explain why he shot so well. He even missed a couple of birdie putts that could have beaten the course record of 62.

But Rachels has been working hard to play well on the senior circuit for nearly a year, since deciding to try qualifying school. One son took over his work as a club pro, while another handled other duties so Rachels could focus on honing his game.

The man once nicknamed ``Home Boy'' by caddies on the PGA Tour for running home after earning a check is ready to hang around now that he is learning how to ignore nerves that used to make him hook his shots.

``Hopefully, I can do this again, and I'll deal with it OK. It's like people who live in a town with a paper mill, and you ask them how they mind living with the smell? They ask, `What smell?','' Rachels said.

``You can get used to anything.''