GRAND BLANC, Mich. (AP) — Brian Bateman’s knees buckled. He tossed his putter in the air and pumped his fists.
His long wait for a PGA Tour victory ended with a birdie on the last hole Sunday at the Buick Open, breaking a four-way tie and making him the improbable winner.
“It seemed like it took forever to get to the hole,” Bateman said of the slow-rolling putt that broke slightly from right to left. “Then, I just went blank and threw my hands up and said, ‘Man, I finally did it.'”
Bateman entered his 151st PGA Tour event 204th on the money list in his sixth year with the world’s best golfers.
His best previous finish was third before he closed with a 3 under to finish 15-under 273 and win by a shot with the highest winning score at Warwick Hills since 1997.
“Every player from Tiger Woods to Brian Bateman has to win their first one,” he said.
Bateman’s chances of winning were boosted when Woods and Vijay Singh didn’t make their usual appearance.
Woods (with his wife and baby) and Singh (resting a sore elbow) didn’t play at the Buick Open for the first time since 2001 after combining to win four of the previous five.
That might’ve diminished the Buick Open title for some players, but not for Bateman.
The 34-year-old native and resident of Monroe, La., earned an $882,000 check – surpassing his total earnings in all but one of his previous five years on the PGA Tour. He made just more than $900,000 in 2004, when he finished a career-best 86th on the money list.
Bateman shot up to 59 on the money list and 44th in FedEx Cup points.
A perfect drive and approach at No. 18 – the tournament’s third-toughest hole – set Bateman up for his 12-footer that kept him out of a playoff, earned him a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour and an invitation to the 2008 Masters.
“It’s a life-changing week,” he said. “A life-changing putt.”
In a tournament that started in 1958, Bateman was just the second player to birdie 18 for a one-shot victory. Rocco Mediate did it in 2000.
“I teared up in the fairway on 18, knowing I was finally giving myself a chance,” he said.
Jason Gore (67), Justin Leonard (67) and Woody Austin (69) finished tied for second. Jim Furyk (70) and Scott Verplank (71) were in a group of five that were two shots behind Bateman.
A tournament-record 15 players finished within three shots of the winner, breaking the previous mark of 14 from 1991.
The greens at Warwick Hills usually draw rave reviews, but dry conditions baked the greens and frustrated the field.
“I would say they’re right there with the U.S. Open in that they’re really crusty and firm and bumpy around the hole,” Austin said.
While Bateman’s final stroke will make the highlights on TV, a putt he made at No. 17 made the win possible. He made an 8-footer, avoiding a costly bogey, after missing the green on the par-3 hole.
“My putter really bailed me out,” Bateman said.
For the first time since 1999, the Buick Open winner didn’t play in the final group.
Third-round leader Tom Pernice Jr. shot a 75, finishing in a tie for 20th at 10 under. Jesper Parnevik, who was also in the final group, didn’t fare much better with a 73 to finish tied for 16th at 11 under.
Bateman insisted he looked at a leaderboard only once, after the ninth hole.
“I didn’t ask my caddie at all how I stood until I stood in the last fairway and I asked him what we needed,” Bateman recalled. “And he said, ‘Birdie to win.'”
Bateman teared up on the final fairway, then regained his composure well enough to make a putt on a green that fooled many in the field all week.
“When I got to 18, I really felt like it was my time,” he said. “I felt like this was my one chance, since I’ve been on Tour, to have a putt on the 18th hole to win. It’s something you tell yourself as a kid on the putting green, ‘This is to win.’
“It’s very gratifying, when you’ve come up short so many times, to finally pull through.”
Divots: John Daly, finishing a season-best 16th, attracted the largest gallery and it included one of his famous friends, Kid Rock, who invited Daly to stay at his Detroit-area house during the week. … Bateman’s winning score was the highest since Singh (15 under) won his first of three Buick Opens in 1997. … Bateman became the eighth player to win his first PGA Tour event this year and the third straight, following Angel Cabrera at the U.S. Open and Hunter Mahan at the Travelers Championship. … The previous three first-time winners at the Buick Open were Pernice (1999), Leonard (1996) and Austin (1995). … Leonard and Gore finished in the top 10 for the first time this year. … Furyk was under par for the 37th straight round at Warwick Hills, dating back to 1997.