Kraft outlasts Van Pelt to win Puerto Rico

Kraft's one win on tour before now was the Deposit Guaranty Classic in 1993, a second-tier event played opposite the Masters.
Brennan Linsley/AP

RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico (AP) — Greg Kraft struggled to explain the emotions that followed his first “official” PGA Tour victory when a simple thought came to him.

“I wish I could describe how I feel,” Kraft said. “Maybe justice.”

Perhaps, given Kraft’s career of near misses, lost chances and overlooked success, that’s indeed the most appropriate.

Kraft held on for a one-shot victory at the inaugural Puerto Rico Open on Sunday. He finished at 14-under to hold off Bo Van Pelt (72), who led after the first three days, and Jerry Kelly (70), the highest-rated player to compete at Trump International Golf Club.

“All the work, rookie year, ’91, ’92, all the way to now. Ups and downs, I had chances to win” through the years, Kraft reflected.

Even Kraft’s one win on tour before now, the Deposit Guaranty Classic in 1993, a second-tier event played opposite the Masters.

Back then, the younger Kraft figured he deserved the win because “it was my time.”

Fifteen years has a way of changing one’s perspective.

“I enjoyed it, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t even compare to the way I feel now,” he said.

The world’s best were again elsewhere for Kraft’s latest success, playing Doral’s Blue Monster in the World Golf Championship’s CA Championships.

This time, though, there’ll be no asterisks.

Kraft earned $630,000 – more than he’s made on the PGA Tour combined since 2003 – and has secured playing privileges through 2010. He had played only two other PGA Tour events this season, his best finish before now a tie for 19th at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico, which also came the week of a WGC tournament.

The win brings Kraft flexibility. Since he’ll no longer worry about chasing tournament opportunities, he’ll work on conditioning to regain playing shape.

“I don’t have to play the Nationwide Tour to get my card back. That’s no fun, go out there and starve,” he said.

It’s been a long road back to the top for Kraft, who turns 44 in April.

Kraft had closed in on the tour’s top 50 money winners a decade ago and looked to be entering the prime of his career. However, he contracted an illness, Valley fever, during the 2002 Tucson Open. The disease is caused by a fungus that get stirred up in soil and attacks the lungs.

Kraft suddenly was losing strength and didn’t know what was wrong. Doctors had trouble diagnosing the malady, even telling Kraft he had cancer. He underwent painful chemotherapy and had a section of a lung removed.

The problems led Kraft to sue the PGA Tour and the resort that hosted the tournament. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, Kraft said.

Gradually, Kraft found his strength. This week in Puerto Rico, he rediscovered his championship game.

“That crystal trophy that I’ll lug home,” he said. “I’ll look at that every day.”

No one was steadier than Kraft. He went 29 straight holes without a bogey on the weekend until a meaningless mistake on the 72nd hole.

Kraft began Sunday a shot behind Van Pelt, who led after each of first three days here.

Early on, Van Pelt seemingly locked down his own first tour win with a stunning eagle-3 on the fifth hole to grab a two-shot lead.

Still, Kraft stayed close with a birdie on No. 5. His chance came soon enough as Van Pelt had consecutive bogeys on the eighth and ninth holes to fall into a three-way tie for first with the back nine to go.

Kraft and Van Pelt had matching birdies on the 12th to stay tied at 14 under. Two holes later, Kraft moved in front for good after Van Pelt’s bogey.

Van Pelt felt confident and figured his eagle – he amazingly hooked a low-liner around some palm trees on the par-5 fifth to land 12 feet away – was the jump start he needed.

Instead, the 32-year-old will have to wait for his first tour win.

“It was frustrating because I knew how good I played all week,” Van Pelt said.

Briny Baird was part of that three-way tie for first. But Baird followed with four straight bogeys to fall from contention. He rallied back within a shot of Kraft after a stretch of three birdies in four holes, but that was as close as Baird could get.

Baird blamed his putter, missing makable par putts on all four holes. “I was looking for a rock” to hide under, Baird said.

It probably wouldn’t have mattered since Kraft wasn’t about to bobble this one away. He cemented things with a birdie on the par-4 17th to open a three-shot cushion.

Divots: Puerto Rico’s lone native golfer in the field Sunday, Miguel Suarez, finished 1-over par and tied for 61st. … Van Pelt was trying to become the first first-time winner to go wire-to-wire since K.J. Choi won the Tampa Bay Classic in 2002. … Organizers were pleased with the week’s turnout, considering the event coincided with Holy Week ceremonies on this highly religious island. Chairman Sidney Wolf says next year’s tournament is expected to come earlier on the PGA Tour schedule.

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