By Jeffrey A. Rendall
POTOMAC, MD -- It didn't rain -- unless you're talking about applause emanating from above as Bob Estes lifted his final putt from the cup on the eighteenth hole, collecting his fourth PGA Tour victory after outlasting challenges from past Kemper Insurance Open Champion Rich Beem ('99) and would be first-time winner Bob Burns.
This year's tournament featured a beginning in the sense that it once again offered a sterling opportunity for a first-time winner to break through; an ending, because it was the final tournament in a distinguished broadcaster's career; and it was also a continuance, because it continued one of the hottest players on tour's march through the season.
Last year's Kemper tournament was marred by constant rain suspensions and interruptions -- so much so that the final holes were carried over to Monday in order to complete 72 holes. Holding true to form in the Kemper tradition, Frank Lickliter III earned his first tour victory by draining a lengthy par putt on the final hole.
This year it appeared as if there might be another first-time winner when Bob Burns took the lead on the 11th hole on Sunday after firing a hole-in-one. Burns, who was paired with Estes, answered Estes' tee shot on the hole, which came to rest inside of ten feet from the flag. Burns landed the ball on a ridge about 40 feet from the cup and watched as the ball trickled in.
"I was pretty charged up," said Burns, who told me he'd only had one other hole-in-one in a tour event. "My first one was in the LA Open, and I was part of the last group of the day in one of the opening rounds. There were only about 20 people who saw it, and it was more like 'Hey, nice shot.' Getting one in front of all those people on Sunday at the Kemper was really something special."
As Burns made his way towards the green, he paused to take a bow in front of the wildly cheering gallery. There probably wasn't a person present who didn't believe that the ace was the final straw in the victory pile for the 34 year-old Burns, a native of Southern California who attended Cal State Northridge and turned pro in 1991. Estes went on to miss his short putt for birdie, and Burns' lead was temporarily two shots.
Burns subsequently gave one back on twelve, and Estes birdied the fourteenth to pull even. Meanwhile, Beem and Australian Steve Elkington (playing a few holes ahead) were making charges at the leaders, pulling even at one point and falling back on the final holes. So did Burns on the sixteenth.
He said the driver shot (on sixteen) over the crest of a ridge was his best drive of the day, and was very happy with his nine-iron approach that landed about twelve feet from the cup -- but then proceeded to slowly roll down a closely cut swale onto a drainage grate. It took him four more strokes to find the hole from there, effectively ending his bid for his first win.
But afterwards, Burns put the experience in perspective: "It was the first time I've come that close to winning on the PGA Tour, and did pretty well except for a somewhat poor shot on the sixteenth hole (not hitting his first putt hard enough). I was proud of the way I hung in there and made a couple nice saves, like on the fifteenth hole."
He continues, "I've won a few times on the Buy.com tour, and always seemed to close pretty well when I've been in that situation -- and nothing at the Kemper would indicate that I won't do well the next time I'm there. Every time you contend, it adds a little bit of confidence for the next time," Burns said.
And as the old saying goes, there are 'horses for courses,' and that would definitely describe Burns and TPC Avenel. His tie-for-third finish was his highest on the PGA Tour, but it was also his second top 25 finish at Avenel in three years. He says the former horse farm turned stunning tour venue sets up well for him: "Of the TPCs, Avenel and maybe Memphis fit my eye the best. Avenel's got pretty generous driving areas for the most part, and you've got to be pretty sharp with your irons into the greens."
"Because of the undulations in the greens, you've got to hit the right spots to leave yourself with potential birdie putts. I like that type of golf course--it makes you focus a little bit more," Burns added.
Though the Burns 'show' was eventually superceded by the steady Estes, perhaps both were upstaged by CBS golf analyst Ken Venturi's picking this year's Kemper Insurance Open as his final regular broadcast. Numerous signs adorned the on-lookers seated around Avenel's eighteenth hole 'stadium,' and it was clear that Venturi was on a lot of their minds.
Several of the players, upon finishing their rounds also paid tribute to Venturi, as did several score of fans who waited long after the tournament finished to try and catch a glimpse of the golf personality as he climbed down from the TV tower to end the day.
Fans sat impatiently through Estes' victory ceremony, seemingly waiting for the chance to chant "Keeennn-neee," "Keeennn-neee," hoping Venturi would poke his head out to acknowledge the crowd. But Venturi had far too much class and respect for the winner of the tournament to interrupt Estes' moment. It's one of the reasons why he's so universally loved by golf fans.
It was an honor that he chose the Washington area event to say goodbye to his multitude of fans, and will be one of the reasons why the 2002 event will always be remembered.
Finally, the 2002 Kemper Insurance Open highlighted the continuing strong play of 36 year-old Texan Bob Estes. Estes earned his third tour victory in the last year, to go along with eight top-10 finishes last year and two fifth place ties this season--at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and the Buick Invitational in February. The win gave him over $1.25 million in earnings this year, and solidly placed him amongst the tour's most consistent and steady performers.
This year's Kemper Open didn't attract many of golf's biggest names, yet it hardly lacked star-power, or drama. And with the Michelob Championship ceasing to be after this year's October tournament, the Kemper Insurance Open will become the Washington area's lone regular PGA tour event. One could only hope next year will bring a similar dose of excitement to golf fans of the region.
The Kemper Insurance Open
May 30 --
Web link: www.kemperopen.pgatour.com
2002 Winner: Bob Estes, with a score of 273
Winner's Purse: $648,000
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