LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — It had been 17 months since Stephen Ames last won on the PGA Tour.
He doesn’t remember it being such a grind.
His last victory came at The Players Championship last year, where Ames made double bogey and still blew away the toughest field in golf by six shots at the TPC Sawgrass. This one came across the street from the Magic Kingdom on a resort course, where the sun cast silhouettes of Mickey Mouse ears that were atop sign posts.
“It was tough,” Ames said.
He made it difficult on himself at the end Sunday at the Children’s Miracle Network Classic, hitting into a bunker some 65 feet away from the hole with Tim Clark only one shot behind and warming up on the practice range in case of a playoff.
Ames finally ended the suspense by blasting out to 3 feet and making the par for a 4-under 68, ending an already successful season with a victory in the final PGA Tour event of the year.
Ames emerged from a crowded leaderboard with three straight birdies on the Magnolia Course to move past Scott Verplank and take a one-shot lead. But the final three holes stretch almost a mile, and Ames knew pars would be hard to find.
“If somebody had told you that you had to make three pars on the last day to win the event, you would, ‘Yeah, that’s going to be a tough feat just in itself.’ And it was,” Ames said.
Clark gave it his best shot.
He birdied six of the last 10 holes for a 66, the best score on the weekend at Disney, and went birdie-par-par that looked good until Ames came through in the clutch.
“I did everything I could, and it wasn’t enough,” Clark said.
Verplank, who shared the 54-hole lead with Ames, was tied with four holes to play until he couldn’t match Ames’ birdie on the 15th and three-putted the 16th from about 70 feet. He shot 71 and tied for third with Tag Ridings (70) and Robert Gamez (68).
The consolation prize went to Kevin Stadler, who tied for 15th to move into the top 125 and keep his card for next year. Stadler finished at No. 124, while Matthias Gronberg locked up the final spot with a tie for 37th.
Stadler began the Fall Series at No. 108 on the money list, but made only two cuts over the last six weeks and had dropped to No. 127. He played the final round knowing he was somewhere around the magic number.
“It’s not life or death, but it’s a hell of a big deal,” Stadler said.
Justin Leonard was among those atop the leaderboard in the final round until a late bogey dropped him into a tie for sixth, leaving him short of the top 30 on the money list to earn a spot in the Masters.
Gamez had a 67-68 weekend and tied for third to earn $239,200, pushing him up to No. 132 on the money list. Gamez and Jeff Gove at least moved inside the top 150, meaning they can skip the second stage of Q-school and at least have conditional status next year. Tripp Isenhour had a chance to join them, but he failed to make birdie in his round of 75.
Ames now settles into a long winter’s nap, easy to do when a guy raised in the Caribbean (Trinidad & Tobago) moves to Calgary and becomes a Canadian citizen.
“It’s a dry cold,” he said. “It doesn’t go through you. It hits you and bounces off.”
The golf courses in Calgary have been closed for a month now, so Ames decided to escape the chill one last time and play in the tour’s season finale at Disney. It helped that his swing coach, Sean Foley, lives in Orlando, and Ames knew they could check on his swing.
It’s not there yet, but getting pretty darn close.
He finished at 17-under 271, the highest winning score since Tiger Woods had the same score in 1999.
“It was a grind coming down to the end there, and it was nice to be in that situation, because I wanted to see how my golf swing held up,” Ames said. “Parts of it held up, and parts didn’t. I know I have a few things to work on for next year.”
The next few weeks will give him time to reflect on this year, which he counted a success even before he won a trophy.
Ames has dealt with back injuries the past several years and wanted to find out why he was hurting, so he hooked with Foley and revamped his swing. He found progress in being among those tied for the lead on the final day at Oakmont at the U.S. Open, and in playing in the final group with Woods at Southern Hills in the PGA Championship.
And he found validation, for sure, by winning at Disney.
His lone bogey came on a three-putt at the 11th, falling one shot behind Verplank, but then came the defining moment of his tournament. He hit a wedge to the back pin at No. 13 to 12 feet for eagle, poured in a 10-foot putt to match birdies with Verplank on the par-5 14th and stay even, then hit a 4-iron that covered the flag and settled 8 feet away on the 204-yard 15th.
“That was a clutch shot,” Ames said.
The money shot turned out to be from a bunker on the 18th hole, and it was worth $828,000 to Ames.
It was his third career victory, and gave Ames strong vibes heading into next season. He has only one event left this year, as defending champion at the Skins Game over Thanksgiving weekend. Then it’s off to Hawaii.
Ames was going, anyway, having scheduled a family vacation on Maui.
“Now I have another reason to go,” he said, alluding to the winners-only Mercedes-Benz Championship at Kapalua. His caddie was wearing a Kapalua shirt under his bib, so maybe that was a good omen.