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Drama on 18th green goes Argentine's way

Jose Coceres beats Davis Love III by one stroke at Disney World.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2001


Jose Coceres beats Davis Love III by one stroke at Disney World.

LAKE BUENA VISTA -- Jose Coceres did not come up in the spoon-fed culture of golf. He took up the game as a boy in Argentina with makeshift clubs made of branches. Along with four of his brothers, all golf pros as well, he got his start as a caddie. Coceres even had to give up the game for 18 months while he served in the military.

So the drenching rain that poured on the Walt Disney World Resort on Sunday afternoon as Coceres was just about to celebrate another improbable golf achievement only served as a reminder that nothing ever comes easy. At least not for Coceres.

In an ending fitting for Disney -- goofy -- rain forced a 40-minute delay just as Coceres was about to hit his approach shot to the 18th green, holding a two-shot advantage over Davis Love III.

When he returned, Coceres nearly coughed up the tournament, leaving a birdie putt on the 18th hole 5 feet short, watching Love make his birdie from 12 feet, then having to sweat out his par putt for the victory.

But for a man who waited some 10 years before he could play golf in North America, the bizarre finish hardly mattered.

"Anybody with money can have a teacher next to you and clubs," said Coceres, who waved a pillow case on the 18th green with a message written in Spanish to his mother, Maria. It was Mother's Day in Argentina. "For us, we were a very humble family. We had to win the money so that we could have bread every day so that we could survive. It wasn't an easy situation."

Coceres, 38, shot 4-under-par 68 on the Magnolia course to complete the 72-hole tournament at 265, 23 under par, and win $612,000 from the $3.4-million purse. He has now won more than $1-million this year. Love, who shot 66, finished a shot back, his fifth top-5 finish of the year. Love, a 14-time PGA Tour winner bidding for his second victory of the season, began the round three strokes behind Coceres in the final group. He tied Coceres with a birdie at the eighth, but fell two behind when he bogeyed the ninth while Coceres birdied. He could never get closer than two strokes until the final green, when he rolled in a birdie putt that forced Coceres to make his par putt on the water-logged green.

"When he did that, everybody on the green except for him kind of perked up," Love said. "It was exciting for just a minute. But other than that, he never really missed one. He did exactly what he had to do and stayed patient and stayed just ahead and never really got into trouble, never really made a mistake."

Several players made a move at Coceres, but none was able to overtake him. Jerry Smith shot a final-round 63 to tie for third place with David Peoples, three back. Smith's 63 was particularly impressive, coming a day after he shot 73.

Smith entered the third round just a shot out of the lead, but was one of only six players to shoot over par Saturday. Given that he was in a precarious 120th place on the money list, his round appeared disappointing.

But the second-year PGA Tour pro bounced back and earned $197,000, jumping from 120th on the money list to 82nd, securing his PGA Tour card for 2002. The top 125 are exempt and just two tournaments remain.

"I just went out there with nothing to lose but everything to gain," Smith said. "It kept me going. Then the next thing I know, I shoot 30 on the back and 63, which is a great score. It is a big relief."

Coceres' rise is just as unlikely. He is from the town of Chaco, roughly 1,100 miles from Buenos Aires. It had just one regulation golf course when he was growing up.

After turning pro, Coceres had to supplement his income by working in a body shop. He eventually put together a group of sponsors, then headed for Europe. Before this year, he had played just a handful of tournaments in the United States.

When he accepted a sponsor's exemption to play in the WorldCom Classic the week after the Masters in April, he was criticized back home. Then he won the tournament, defeating Billy Mayfair in a playoff.

Now he's won twice -- which is as many victories this year as some more prominent players such as Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia, and more than Vijay Singh, Love and David Duval.

"It was really important for me to demonstrate that I didn't win one tournament by accident, but that I could win two," he said. "And maybe why not three?"

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