- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

The path Michael Allen took to this point - a shot behind the best player in the world and a chance to win his first PGA tournament in 337 career starts - wasn’t a linear one. Not even close.

It traversed hairpin turns and second guesses, taking Allen through a stint in the home construction business, a job as the assistant club professional at Winged Foot and even an interview for a job at one of Donald Trump’s new golf courses.

He dumped putters, consulted swing coaches and went through the tour’s qualifying school more than once - try a record seven times.

But now Allen, at age 50, is a shot back of host Tiger Woods and Anthony Kim heading into the final round of the AT&T; National. He is bidding to become the first player to win a PGA Tour event after his first Champions Tour victory, which came at the Senior PGA Championship in May.

More than that, Allen can further vindicate a career spent on the fringes.

“I usually feel like I play pretty well when it really matters,” Allen said. “I’ve gotten through Tour school a lot, so playing for your career and your family is hard.”

Allen shot 65 on Saturday at Congressional Country Club, the lowest round of the day, moving him to 9 under for the tournament. He’ll be in the second-to-last group Sunday, playing with Cameron Beckman, who is tied for third with Allen.

On a day when Congressional’s greens firmed up just enough to keep most players from taming the Blue Course for all 18 holes, Allen came the closest to doing it. He birdied the sixth through ninth holes, making the turn in 32, and answered a bogey on the par-4 12th with three birdies in the next four holes.

What Allen lacked in power - his average driving distance of 297.5 yards was 15 yards behind Woods’ average - he made up for with reliability, taking 28 putts for the third straight round and hitting 14 greens in regulation.

“I’m hanging in there,” he said. “Most of my birdies were around five feet. I was just able to make a few more birdies today.”

In a larger sense, hanging in there is what Allen has been doing most of his career. He left the tour out of frustration in the mid-1990s, taking the job at Winged Foot and building houses, doing what he could to keep golf in his life while guaranteeing himself a steady income.

“I tried to do a few different things in that period and really realized that to go out in the real world and try to make $100,000 a year to try to support your family is a hard thing to do,” Allen said. “This was something I was better at.”

His career might be reaching its zenith. He won just over $2 million combined in 2007 and 2008, posting five top-10s during that time, including a runner-up finish in 2007 and a third-place showing last season.

He rifled through three putters this season, returning to the belly putter he has used for the past five years after flirtations with short and long blades. After the Senior PGA win, he called swing coach Mike Mitchell to give his game a charge, and now he’s a shot back of Woods at his own tournament.

“Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” Woods said. “It goes to show you, a lot of guys can turn around their careers by training and doing different things. It used to be a lot of guys in their 40s were buying time to get to the Senior Tour. Now, Jay Haas, Fred Funk, Michael, Kenny [Perry], those guys are playing well.”

Allen said he played nine holes with Woods once - and he suspects that when Woods walked up to introduce himself, he had had a little help remembering who Allen was.

“He said, ‘Hey, Mike,’ ” Allen said. “I’m sure my caddie had the bag pointed toward him so he could read it.”

Woods will know who Allen is Sunday. Of the guys trying to beat Woods for just the fourth time in 49 tournaments when he has had at least a share of the 54-hole lead, Allen certainly has the most interesting back story.

“That would be just what I’ve always wanted to do, to beat the best player in the world and to come out on a great golf course like this, not just a birdiefest,” Allen said. “That would certainly validate everything that I’ve worked on for the last four or five years.”

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