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Pressure building at Innisbrook

Infrequent winners are lining up for a rare shot at a PGA Tour title.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2000


photo
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Carl Paulson's 1-under 70 put him in a good position to win his first PGA Tour title.
PALM HARBOR -- The game is far more difficult than Tiger Woods makes it look, and victories do not come as easily to the mortals who are attempting to make a living in his shadow.

John Huston captured his first PGA Tour title when Woods was barely out of grammar school and is the 20th-ranked player in the world, yet he has just five tour titles, 24 behind Woods.

The point is, winning golf tournaments, even for the best of the best, is not a frequent occurrence.

"It's tough to win the first time. It's tough to win the second time," Huston said. "They're all tough. If you're winning on a regular basis like Tiger, it becomes easier mentally."

Oh, to know that feeling.

In fact, it is so fleeting, most players come to accept it as a reward rather than a life or death experience.

"If you're only happy out here if you win a golf tournament," said Steve Lowery, "you're going to be miserable."

Carl Paulson and Len Mattiace would like to experience their first victory. Lowery would like to experience it for the second time. And Huston would dearly love to win in his hometown.

Paulson maintained a two-shot advantage over Mattiace through 54 holes of the Tampa Bay Classic on Saturday. The PGA Tour non-winners shot 1-under-par 70 on the Copperhead course at the Westin Innisbrook Resort. Paulson was at 202, 11 under par.

Lowery, who is looking for his first victory since the International in 1994, shot 69 to trail by three, followed by Huston, whose 67 vaulted him from a tie for 18th into a tie for fourth with Frank Lickliter (71), four behind Paulson.

They'll be among a limited number of players who have a chance at winning the first-place check of $432,000.

Andrew Magee shot the best round of the day, 6-under 66, that moved him into a tie for sixth at 207 with Robin Freeman, five shots behind Paulson. Bob Friend (70) and Scott Gump (74) were six shots back.

Huston, whose first victory came 10 years ago at the Honda Classic, figures to have a bit of an advantage over the players he is chasing. In addition to his experience, he knows the Copperhead course better than anybody in the field, having played it countless times over the years.

And not having won for two years, he knows what a difficult task it is, especially for those without the experience.

"It's hard to do," said Huston, who lives in Safety Harbor. "As soon as you hit that bad shot when you're in that position, you have to forget about it. And that's hard to do. The natural thing to do is, "Wow, here we go. Never won. This is why.'

"But a lot of times, if you're playing really well, it can almost help you. When I first won, I was playing so well. I was really nervous, but it helped me. I was playing so well that it kept me really focused.

"But if your game's a little shaky and you get into the lead, then the pressure is much harder. I've been on that side of it, too. I had a four-shot lead one year somewhere, but I wasn't playing that well. I was getting it around. And it just didn't hold up."

Both Paulson and Mattiace showed signs of slipping Saturday. Mattiace had three birdies and two bogeys and described it as "nothing exciting, kind of a nothing day."

Paulson started strong with birdies at the first and fourth holes but bogeyed the par-5 fifth, the seventh and the 10th before regaining a two-shot advantage with birdies at the 15th and 17th holes.

"Any birdie on a day like today is huge," said Paulson, 29. "My swing got a little quick out there, and that's what happens to me when I don't play real well. But the nice thing is I recognized it, corrected it and made a couple of birdies coming in.

"I was nervous. If I wasn't nervous, there'd be something wrong. It's like playing in 115-degree heat and not sweating."

Paulson won twice last year on the Buy.com Tour and has had other success, such as being the medalist at the 1995 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament. He led the Buy.com money list last year to secure his PGA card this year.

"I've been through this a lot," he said. "This is my third year out here and I played three years on the Buy.com Tour. I've had a lot of tournaments I thought I should have won, especially the three years on the Buy.com Tour, and didn't. If you get ahead of yourself, you can get yourself in trouble."

The Copperhead is probably enough to worry about. In addition to the pressure of playing with or near the lead, there was the burden of a difficult course. The Copperhead yielded just 11 sub-70 scores and played to an average of 72 strokes.

"If you're a little off, you're not going to just cruise around this course shooting under par," said Fred Couples, who has 14 PGA Tour wins and shot 71. "If you exclude the places where major championships are played, this is probably among the top five we play on the tour."

Huston got off to a quick start, birdieing the first two holes and making the turn in 4 under. He pulled within two shots of Paulson with a birdie at the 11th hole but bogeyed the 15th. Still, it was a huge improvement from Friday, when Huston shot 73 and struggled. "I felt like I had some general idea where it was going," he said.

And it put him in position.

"I think it would be a really neat feeling," Huston said. "Certainly it's an incredible feeling any time (you win). But I think if you win at home. ... It was a great thrill when Amy (Benz) and I won the mixed team (JCPenney) at Bardmoor. I think it would be pretty special."

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