Verplank Gets Long-Awaited Win In Nelson

Monday, April 30th 2007, 7:29 am

By: News On 6

IRVING, Texas (AP) _ Scott Verplank dropped into a squatting position and looked skyward, almost in disbelief _ and to say thanks. Finally, after so many tries, Verplank won the tournament he's always wanted to win. This victory at home was for the late Byron Nelson.

``There's no question in my mind that the stars lined up and I got a little help from upstairs. I just haven't been playing that good,'' Verplank said. ``I think Byron had a hand in this week.''

Verplank, who as a teenager growing up in Dallas got to know Nelson and play several rounds with the former star, used three straight birdies and an incredible par save from a bunker at No. 17 to win the first EDS Byron Nelson Championship played without its namesake.

When his final 2-foot par putt at No. 18 dropped Sunday for a one-stroke victory over Luke Donald, Verplank no longer had to hold his emotions. After initially dropping his head into his hands, he looked up with a smile on his face.

``I just kept saying, `Oh my gosh! I can't believe it!' I couldn't believe that it happened. It was a dream,'' Verplank said. ``Then I looked up and said, `Thank you.' Incredible.''

Sadly missing was a personal congratulation from Nelson, who died Sept. 26 at age 94. But Nelson's wife, Peggy, was there clutching one of his famed fedoras in her hand when she hugged Verplank.

``Byron would be very, very happy for Scott. I am, too,'' Peggy Nelson said. ``The friendship they had, it's great to see it culminate this way.''

In 1968, Nelson became the first golfer to have a PGA Tour event named after him, and he would always greet players finishing their rounds at the 18th green before taking part in the award ceremony.

Verplank closed with a 4-under-66 for a 13-under 267 total, a stroke ahead of Donald (68) for his fifth PGA Tour victory, his first since the 2001 Canadian Open. Phil Mickelson (65), Jerry Kelly (64), Rory Sabbatini (64) and Ian Poulter (66) tied for third at 10 under.

Clinging to a one-stroke lead, Verplank hit his tee shot at the 196-yard 17th hole into a bunker far away on the side opposite the hole. But he saved par _ and the long-desired championship _ after blasting to less than 2 feet.

Before hitting his final tee shot at No. 18, Verplank got an unexpected comforting feeling.

``I had some help there on the last hole. There's no doubt,'' he said. ``I felt a cool breeze, and it wasn't cool out there.''

Verplank and Donald both drove their balls into the fairway and then had similar 10-foot birdie attempts that slid past the hole. After Donald putted out, Verplank did the same.

``I don't think it was a very good putt. I got an assist and it went in,'' Verplank said. ``I'm not sure I knew where I was at.''

This victory was much more valuable to Verplank than the $1.134 million check and a custom-made motorcycle built by Orange County Choppers.

It was the 21st Nelson tournament for the 42-year-old Verplank, who considers the event his fifth major because of the man for which it's named _ and who used to write him encouraging notes. Verplank once was a standard bearer at the tournament, where his mother was a volunteer.

Donald's 12th straight under-par round at the Nelson wasn't enough to overcome Verplank's apparent destiny this week.

The sore shoulder that has bothered Verplank for so long, the same problem that forced him to withdraw from last year's tournament that was the last attended by Nelson, was never an issue this week.

``It went away. I'm serious,'' Verplank said, shaking his head. ``I didn't feel any pain.''

Donald started the day up by one stroke. His lead had grown to three after his 12-foot putt at the 438-yard sixth hole, his third birdie in a four-hole stretch.

``I was feeling really good about my game,'' Donald said.

But No. 6 was the same hole where Verplank began his birdie run with a 5-footer. Verplank was within a stroke at 12 under after chipping to 2 feet for birdie at the 533-yard seventh hole and making a 12-footer at No. 8. Things went wrong for Donald at the ninth hole.

Donald's drive at the 439-yard hole went into the trees on the left and his approach shot from there wound up in the rough to the right of the green. The Englishman hit his next shot over the green and left his chip 12 feet short before his bogey putt skidded past the hole.

``That was the difference,'' said Donald, also a runner-up at the Sony Open in Hawaii in mid-January. ``I will look at the positive, but right now I'm very disappointed. ... It's not much fun finishing second.''

Even though Verplank missed his 8-foot birdie attempt at No. 9, he was in the lead _ and stayed there.

Verplank made a 13-foot birdie putt at No. 11, curled a 16-foot birdie attempt just over the top of the hole at No. 12 and then made a 23-foot putt at the 183-yard 13th to get to 14 under _ four strokes ahead of Donald.

Verplank missed the fairway and had bogey at No. 15, then had to settle for par after finding a greenside bunker at the 554-yard 16th _ the easiest hole on the course. Donald blasted out of a bunker to 4 feet for his birdie that got him back within a stroke.

The closest Verplank had come to winning the Nelson before was in 2001 when he lost a four-hole playoff with Robert Damron. That was the first of three top-10 finishes the last six tournaments.

Mickelson, in his first tournament since the Masters and with Butch Harmon as his instructor, had two chip-in birdies the first seven holes.

Mickelson came up only inches short of another chip in at No. 8, then hit his approach to 3 feet at No. 9 for a birdie to get to 9 under. But he couldn't keep up his charge on the back nine.

Sabbatini, who tied for second at the Masters, finished the Nelson with three straight birdies _ and noticed the obvious void at No. 18 without Nelson.

``Obviously, very strange. It's sad, he was a great man,'' Sabbatini said. ``Not enough can be said about him. Obviously, he's dearly missed.''

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