DAMRON gets first PGA Tour victory in a playoff

Monday, May 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

IRVING, Texas (AP) _ Robert Damron finally made a putt that Scott Verplank couldn't answer, and won for the first time.

Damron also got a good break and made a bold move Sunday in the final round of the Byron Nelson Classic before he finally beat Verplank with an 18-foot birdie putt on the fourth playoff hole, the par-3 17th.

After Tiger Woods, Nick Price and David Duval were out of contention, and Verplank, who played college golf at Oklahoma State, birdied three of the last four holes in regulation, Damron won his first PGA Tour event in a playoff distinctly different from those at the Nelson the previous two years.

No one made a mistake on the extra holes.

``I didn't have an option. Scott hit them in front of me. So I think it made it easier,'' said Damron, a newly married 28-year-old who won $810,000. ``It gave me no choice. Either I step up and I hit a good shot or it's over.''

Verplank, trying to become the first Dallas-born player to win the Nelson, never had a birdie putt longer than 18 feet in the playoff. Three of those were just a turn away from falling.

Damron and Verplank closed with 66s to finish at 263, three strokes ahead of the talented trio of champions who had been in contention for most of the day. Brian Watts and Justin Leonard, another hometown favorite, finished at 267.

On the final hole, Damron took a risk, and it paid off.

After hitting it close with a 6-iron on the 17th in regulation and the first time around in the playoff, Damron decided to change to a 7-iron and take dead aim at a pin tucked behind the water.

``The worst thing that was going to happen is we lose,'' he reasoned. ``I didn't want to do it by backing down.''

Damron, who changed putters last week for the first time in his 132 PGA starts, curled his putt into the center of the cup. Verplank couldn't extend the playoff when his 15-foot birdie was well off the mark.

``I kept hitting good shots and he kept matching me,'' Verplank said. ``For a guy who hadn't won, he hit the ball pretty good in the playoff.''

The real break for Damron came on the 14th, when he found a gap in the trees just wide enough to clear the water hazard and land in the bunker, setting up a routine par save instead of chipping out of the trees and likely making a bogey.

Verplank then chipped in from 20 feet on the 15th to tie Damron at 15 under, and they matched birdies on the 16th _ Verplank with a 15-footer, Damron by blasting out of a bunker to about 2 feet.

After Damron hit a 6-iron to 10 feet on the 17th, Verplank answered with a 10-footer on the 72nd hole to force the playoff at the TPC at Las Colinas.

Damron peeked at the leaderboard only once during the final round, on his fourth hole when he noticed that Woods was making a charge.

Woods, playing for the first time since winning the Masters four weeks ago for his fourth consecutive major, birdied seven of his first 13 holes to briefly pull into a share of the lead.

After starting the day six strokes behind Verplank and Damron, the co-leaders after 54 holes, Woods got rolling from Nos. 6 to 12. He had three straight birdies, made a delicate chip to save par and then had three more birdies.

With a chance to take the outright lead on the 13th, his 10-footer broke just below the hole. He bogeyed the next hole.

``What really hurt was the putt I missed on 13 to keep the run going,'' said Woods, who went on to a closing 63. ``I'm very pleased that I was able to hang in there and not really have my best stuff.''

Figuring that Woods (27 PGA Tour wins) was quickly running out of holes, Damron never looked back at the scoreboard. He never really knew Price (16 wins) and Duval (12) were also lurking right behind most of the time.

``I put my head in my feet. I made sure I didn't look,'' Damron said. ``I felt like it was just me and Scott after he chipped in on 15. But honestly, after I missed my putt for birdie on the 72nd hole and I walked towards my caddie and I said, `Is it just me and Scott?' I didn't know for sure.''

Divots: Damron became the first player in seven years to make the Nelson Classic his first victory. The $810,000 was more than he ever won in any of his four full seasons on tour. ... Woods, with four rounds in the 60s for the eighth time in his career, needed just 21 putts. ... Verplank is 2-2 in playoffs. He went four holes with Jean Van de Velde in the Reno-Tahoe Open and won. It was Damron's first playoff. ... Defending champion Jesper Parnevik finished at 276 after a closing 74.