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Woody Austin: Journeyman turned celebrity

Photo: Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Austin's dive on 14, which he followed with three match-saving birdies, became a P-Cup instant classic.

MONTREAL (AP) — Even as Woody Austin walked up the 14th fairway at Royal Montreal wearing a scuba mask, his family and friends back home in rural Kansas were making "Aquaman" hats for a homecoming like no other.

He will never live this down.

And he has never lived it up quite like this.

Austin was either the toast of the Presidents Cup or the team mascot, but it was all good stuff.

The indelible image of his amazing week was Austin trying to hit a shot from the large pond left of the 14th fairway, failing miserably, then flailing his arms when he lost his balance and eventually plunging face-first into the drink.

Playing on his first national team, it was quite a baptism.

"I have a feeling that he will be hearing about that for the rest of his life," U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus said.

Maybe the story will be told about what followed, how he birdied the last three holes - three of the toughest on the back nine at Royal Montreal, no less - to earn a halve that was as improbable as the 43-year-old Austin even making this team.

Also forgotten was Thursday afternoon, when Austin twice made clutch par putts on the closing holes for another halve against Mike Weir and Vijay Singh that set the tone for American success.

It is not unusual for someone obscure to make such a splash (sorry, Woody) in these events, whether it was Peter Baker for Europe in the 1993 Ryder Cup or Kirk Triplett for the United States in the 2000 Presidents Cup.

But this was different.

It wasn't just one week at Royal Montreal, rather two months that changed his life.

"Woody Austin will have a gallery wherever he goes now," Nicklaus said.

Until two months ago, Austin was the quintessential journeyman. He was 30 when he finally earned his PGA Tour card as the medalist at Q-school. Before that, he toiled on the mini-tours and in Japan, worked as a bank teller in his native Tampa, Fla., and took one job stocking shelves at a drug store.

His victory at the Buick Open in 1995 was enough for him to beat out David Duval as PGA Tour rookie of the year. He went another nine years before winning again, this time in Hartford. Otherwise, not many knew who he was except for the occasional display of his temper, which Austin might call a product of high expectations.

Sure, there was that incident at Hilton Head in 1997 when he got so mad that he smashed his putter against his head in rapid-fire succession until it broke (the putter, not his head). Any number of weeks, Austin would carry on loud and spirited conversations with himself about how the cards always seemed to be stacked against him.

Just look at him now.

Two months after he shot 62 to win the Stanford St. Judge Championship, Austin made a serious run at the PGA Championship, where he made as much news in front of microphone as he did on the golf course. He was lampooned for saying that he outplayed Tiger Woods the day Woods shot a record-tying 63 (Austin shot 70). But he finished second at Southern Hills, and that was enough for Austin to earn the 10th and final spot on the Presidents Cup team.

Then came the clutch putts, the comical plunge, the relentless ribbing and the instant celebrity.

"He worked so hard to get here. He's worked hard all his life," his wife, Shannon, said as she watched him play his final match. "You dream about moments like this, but when it happens, it just takes your breath away."

Austin says he won't let it get to his head, and he figured the verbal abuse he took from his own teammates at Royal Montreal surely will keep him grounded.

"I'm the screwball no matter what," he said.

But he also reflected on the relationships that were built at the Presidents Cup, and that seemed to mean more to him than anything. One week he was another face on the PGA Tour, the next week he was in a circle of friends that included Nicklaus, Woods and Mickelson.

"If it all comes to a close for me at this juncture, I couldn't have asked for a better week," Austin said. "If it continues, I'm going to busy my butt to get into another one, because it's been a blast-and-a-half."

He didn't lose until Sunday singles, but by then, he had earned more respect than he ever imagined. Nicklaus put him in the fifth match, privately hopeful that Austin would deliver the point that clinched the Presidents Cup.

The PGA Tour is about to air a commercial that congratulates the U.S. team winning the cup, and it details a recipe for success that includes sportsmanship, competition, great shots and a splash of Woody.

Two months changed his life, but odds are it won't change Austin.

He leads a simple life in his adopted home of Derby, Kan., where he met his wife. She was a hairstylist whose client was trying to qualify for the Nike Tour event in town, so she went out to watch and was introduced to Austin. They have been together ever since.

"He always knew he could play the game at this level," she said. "It was just surreal sitting there with Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. He's never had more fun than he's had this week."

Austin isn't treated like a celebrity at home, not even in their bowling league. Shannon Austin isn't sure how much that will change, although with the "Aquaman" hats, she didn't expect the ribbing to stop when he got home.

"I'm sure they'll have some fun with him," she said.

Do they have a pool?

"No," she said with a smile. "But we have a pond."

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