Tampa's Imada just misses first win

Published May 21, 2007

He played near the lead for most of the four-day tournament, birdied the 18th hole to force a sudden-death playoff and ended up second to Masters champion Zach Johnson, his best finish ever on the PGA Tour.

But none of that was much consolation to Tampa's Ryuji Imada early Sunday evening.

"Unless you win out here, it doesn't mean much, " Imada said by telephone from Duluth, Ga., where he won $583, 200 at the AT&T Classic. "That's what we play for. I came close, but it's very disappointing. ... I'm sure as it goes on, maybe I'll feel better. I guess it's a step in the right direction."

Imada, 30, shot a final-round 70 at the TPC Sugarloaf course, which included an up-and-down from behind the 18th green for birdie that forced the playoff.

But on the same 18th hole in the playoff, Imada pulled his tee shot barely into the rough, leaving a tough shot to the par-5 green. Knowing that Johnson, safely in the fairway, could easily reach in two, Imada gambled with a 3-wood from 245 yards but came up short and found the water.

"I knew I had to take a chance, " said Imada, who moved to Tampa from Japan at age 14 and attended Chamberlain High and the University of Georgia. "Zach wasn't going to miss the green from there. If I had laid up, that was a tough shot, too. It was tough either way. I hit a 3-wood and flipped the face just a touch."

Johnson, 31, who last month won the Masters, captured the suburban Atlanta tournament for the second time and now has three PGA Tour victories.

Imada had never held a 36-hole or 54-hole lead on the tour and had never played in the final group. But paired with third-round co-leader Troy Matteson, Imada appeared in control for most of the day.

He had a chance to go up by three when he failed to convert a birdie putt at the 13th. Bogey at the 14th and Johnson's closing 67 left him fighting. Imada had a chance to take the lead with a 10-foot birdie putt at the 17th but missed, then was forced to tie Johnson, who birdied the 18th ahead of him.

"I think the whole week was just phenomenal, " said Rich Abele, Imada's longtime coach who teaches at World Woods in Brooksville. "He goes back to Atlanta and Georgia, it's like his second home. The experience is phenomenal. The last group the last two days. National TV."

Imada is in his third full year on the tour and his previous best finish was fifth at the 2005 Booz Allen Classic. Last year, he tied for 11th at the U.S. Open, four strokes behind winner Geoff Ogilvy. That finish gets him to next month's U.S. Open at Oakmont.

LPGA: Lorena Ochoa won for the first time since replacing Annika Sorenstam as the No. 1 women's player, defending her Sybase Classic title in Clifton, N.J.

Ochoa caught front-running Sarah Lee and finished three strokes ahead, closing with a bogey-free 4-under 68.

The $210, 000 prize pushed her earnings this year to $965, 714 and more than $7-million in four-plus years.

CHAMPIONS: Brad Bryant staged a final-day comeback at the Regions Charity Classic, then beat R.W. Eaks on the third hole of a playoff to become the first player to win the tournament twice in Hoover, Ala.

Bryant sank a nearly 13-foot birdie putt on the 470-yard, par-4 18th after both parred the hole twice in the playoff. He won $240, 000, finishing 12-under 204.

Bob Gilder, who led Bryant and Eaks by five at the start of the round, fell out of contention with 73. Seve Ballesteros tied for last with Lee Trevino in his senior debut.

EUROPEAN: Padraig Harrington became the first Irishman to win the Irish Open in 25 years, parring the first hole of a playoff to beat Bradley Dredge in Adare.

JAPANESE: High school student Ryo Ishikawa, 15, won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup, the youngest winner in the history of the Japanese men's pro tour. The former national junior high school champion shot 6-under 66 for a one-stroke win over Katsumasa Miyamoto in his first tour appearance. Ballesteros won the 1977 Japan Open at 20.

OBITUARY: Former Australian Open champ Norman Von Nida, who won more than 80 titles worldwide and was a trailblazer for Australian golf, died Sunday in a Gold Coast nursing home. He was 93.

Bob Harig can be reached at 727 893-8806 or harig@sptimes.com Information from Times wires was used in this report.