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Familiarity breeds success

John Huston, veteran of 100-plus Copperhead course rounds, rallies from 4 back with 65 to win.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2000


photo
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
John Huston played Nos. 15-18 in 3 under.
PALM HARBOR -- He saw a familiar path to the cup, but John Huston never could have visualized so much riding on the outcome. Not at the place he considered his Augusta National as a high school kid. Not where so many days were spent learning his craft.

But there he was late Sunday afternoon, friends and family filling the grandstand around the 18th green of the Copperhead course at the Westin Innisbrook Resort, 20 feet of plush grass between him and the hole.

And far more than a winning wager riding on the result.

When the ball dove into the cup for birdie, it not only clinched a stirring come-from-behind victory, it put an exclamation point on the inaugural Tampa Bay Classic and gave the tournament a local-boy-does-good ending.

"It's amazing," said Huston, who won $432,000 from the $2.4-million purse. "I never had such comfortable surroundings as I did this week on this golf course. It really helped me coming down the stretch. Every time I got up over a shot, I said, "I've hit this shot a thousand times; just go ahead and do it.' There's no question the home course was a big factor. And having the crowd out there was certainly a big help."

Huston, who trailed Carl Paulson by four strokes when the final round began, charged to his sixth PGA Tour title. He birdied three of the final four holes and shot 5-under-par 30 on the back to complete a 6-under 65 for a three-shot victory over Paulson.

After playing the front nine in 1 under, Huston birdied three in a row on the back, made bogey at the 13th, then birdied three of the last four holes. It was quite a finish, even for Huston, who holds the PGA Tour scoring record and was more familiar with Innisbrook than anybody else in the field.

"I've had some good rounds out here, but none more satisfying than today," said Huston, 39, a Safety Harbor resident who shot rounds of 66, 73, 67 and 65 for a total of 271, 13 under par. "And definitely not under these conditions. It was a pretty tough day to score. Club selection was difficult. But I putted really well."

And he broke Paulson's heart in the process. Standing on the 18th tee, Paulson knew birdie could force a tie -- until he saw the reaction of the crowd as Huston's putt dropped. He then made a meaningless bogey to shoot 72. Paulson, 29, attempting to win his first tour event, led after the second and third rounds and was in front by one through 14 holes.

"I'm a little disappointed I didn't win, but I didn't lose the golf tournament. I ran into a brick wall in John today," said Paulson, who still posted his best PGA Tour finish and earned $259,200. "There's not much you can do about running into a guy who shoots 65 on Sunday."

Or one who birdies three of the last four holes, all difficult. After escaping the par-5 14th with par, Huston hit a 5-iron to 10 feet for birdie at the par-3 15th to tie Paulson; a 7-iron to 18 feet for birdie at the 460-yard par-4 16th to take the lead; narrowly missed a 20-foot birdie putt at the 17th; then drained his slick downhill birdie at No. 18 to wrap up the win.

To put his finish in perspective: Huston played the last four holes in 3 under. Only two other players among the 74 Sunday played them in 1 under. The other 71 played them in par or worse.

"When I got to those holes, I just wanted to give myself four chances," Huston said. "I wanted to be on the green four times. And I ended up having four really good chances and made three of them."

Said Paulson: "I heard John say he wanted to give himself four good chances on the last four holes. I did the same exact thing and played the last four holes in 1 over. John deserves to win birdieing three of the last four holes. It's amazing. If you make four pars on those holes ... that's good playing."

It was more remarkable when Huston considered how poorly he played Friday, shooting a 73 that left him seven strokes back and a score he said "could have been 80. It's a miracle I was even around to be in a position to win."

Huston's victory moved him from 35th to 19th on the PGA Tour money list with $1,546,695. This is the third consecutive year he has gone over $1.5-million in earnings. Huston is assured of a spot in the Tour Championship, reserved for the top 30 money winners, in two weeks. And he'll be back at January's Mercedes Championship, reserved for tournament winners.

Five of Huston's six victories have occurred in Florida, and in four he made up a four-stroke deficit in the final round. His only win outside Florida came at the 1998 Hawaiian Open, where he set the tour 72-hole scoring record, 28 under 260.

Yes, the man can go low. And he picked a good time to do it again. "I just had good karma this week," Huston said. "A lot of good things happened."

Meet John Huston

RESIDES: Safety Harbor.

BIRTHDATE: June 1, 1961.

BIRTHPLACE: Mount Vernon, Ill.

FAMILY: Wife, Suzanne; Jessica (12), Travis (7).

HIGH SCHOOL: Dunedin High.

TURNED PRO: 1983.

JOINED PGA TOUR: 1988.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Six PGA Tour victories, including the Tampa Bay Classic. Holds the PGA Tour's 72-hole scoring record, 28-under-par 260 at the 1998 Hawaiian Open. Played on the 1994 and 1998 U.S. Presidents Cup teams. Has earned $8,677,277 in official PGA Tour money. Has won five of his six career titles in Florida.

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