Wilson holds off field to win Humana Challenge
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By GREG BEACHAM
LA QUINTA, Calif. (AP) Mark Wilson's last day at the Humana Challenge started before sunrise and ended after sunset. In between, he finished his third round, got his kids ready for daycare at his in-laws' house, and then held off several hard-charging contenders amid the final round's growing dark and desert chill.
Yep, Wilson certainly earned the trophy he promptly broke.
Wilson made a 10-foot birdie putt on the final hole to win the Humana Challenge on Sunday, beating Robert Garrigus, John Mallinger and Johnson Wagner by two strokes in a dramatic dusk finish to the wind-delayed tournament.
Moments after Garrigus barely missed a 35-foot eagle putt that would have given him the lead, Wilson coolly made his birdie try in the disappearing light before celebrating his fifth career PGA Tour victory with his wife, two sons and a surprisingly fragile trophy from the erstwhile Bob Hope Classic. Even on a day chock-full of uncommon obstacles, Wilson handled everything with style.
"Robert and I, going back and forth, we really enjoyed that," Wilson said. "It just came down to 18, and I didn't want to give him a chance to make that putt to tie me. ... That's what we play for. You want somebody to win it, not necessarily to lose it."
Wilson led by three strokes Sunday morning after finishing the final three holes of his third round at La Quinta Country Club, which got the most damage from Saturday's ferocious wind. After a quick trip back to his in-laws' place nearby, he quickly lost the lead on the low-scoring Palmer Private course, but played bogey-free over the final 15 holes.
Every other competitor dropped back - including Garrigus, who fell out of the lead when he missed a 5 1/2-foot par putt on the 17th.
"We really couldn't see much," said Garrigus, who finished a third-round 61 earlier Sunday. "I could barely pick up the flag on 18. We had a great day, and it got pretty dark. I wish I could have read that putt a little better."
Wilson closed with a 3-under 69 to finish at 24 under, taking the $1,008,000 winner's share of the $5.6 million purse despite the growing dark and cold. While most everybody else pulled on sweaters for the final holes, the Wisconsin native stayed in his polo shirt out of superstition and familiarity.
"It's a feel thing," Wilson said. "I've been playing with short sleeves all day. I didn't just want to put it on and get a new feeling, because everything was going well."
After wind gusts topping 35 mph caused damage on all three courses and forced an early end to play Saturday, the final round stretched well past sunset in the Coachella Valley. The first three rounds were dominated by low scores, but Jeff Maggert made the biggest move in the final round, moving up to fifth with a bogey-free 64.
Eight players were within two strokes of the lead when the final group neared the turn, but Wilson weathered every challenge with solid shot-making that added to his reputation as a fast starter. Wilson won twice in the first few weeks of last season, and each of his five career victories have come before mid-March.
"The only thing I can think of is the break in November and December," Wilson said. "I clear my mind of golf. I tend to remember the good things I did in the season before, and when I've come out the last two years, I've really had a clear mind focused on what I'm doing."
Wagner, who won the Sony Open last week in Hawaii, birdied two of his final three holes, hitting a 7-foot birdie putt on the 18th to finish at 22 under. Mallinger then pushed a 15-foot birdie putt inches wide on the 18th, barely missing the chance to move into a first-place tie.
Mallinger, a Southern California native who matched his best PGA Tour finish, didn't blame the miss on the darkness.
"I've played golf for 20 years. I know how to read a putt," he said. "But it was fun."
The exciting finish in the gathering darkness capped a revitalizing week for the former Hope. The tournament signed its first title sponsor in four years and partnered with the foundation of former President Bill Clinton, who serves as its new host.
The revamped pro-am dropped its traditional fifth day of competition and boosted its purse, attracting the best professional field in several years. Attendance also increased sharply, with crowds gathering to watch Phil Mickelson and the celebrity competitors over the first three days - including Clinton, whose round was interrupted by wind Saturday.
Wilson holed a bunker shot on the par-3 12th to reclaim sole possession of the lead at 22 under, pulling one stroke ahead of Mallinger and Garrigus. Mallinger caught up on the 14th with a short birdie putt, and Garrigus joined them moments later in the next group.
Wilson and Garrigus then both holed tough birdie putts on the 16th, but Garrigus' tee shot on the 17th landed on the fringe. He missed his par putt, dropping back to 22 under while Wilson grinded out a par.
Garrigus easily reached the 18th green in two, but his long eagle putt over a rise barely missed the hole, going 9 feet past. Garrigus played the tournament's first 17 holes at 6 over before going 28 under in the final 55.
DIVOTS: Wagner is 35 under for the past two weeks combined. ... Mickelson didn't help the final-round push for quick play when he spent several long minutes searching for his ball in the mountainside rocks on the 14th hole after an ill-advised attempt to reach the green. A lone bighorn sheep intently watched Mickelson's search from a ridge above the course. Mickelson shot a 69 to tie for 49th at 10 under in his first Palm Springs appearance since 2007. ... Defending champion Jhonattan Vegas missed the cut, and 2010 champion Bill Haas - who lost in a playoff last year - tied for 64th at 8 under.
Updated January 22, 2012