- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2000

The Kemper Open loves to play kingmaker.

Obscure three-year tour player Tom Scherrer took the tournament scepter at TPC at Avenel yesterday, surviving challenges from veterans Steve Lowery and Justin Leonard to become the ninth first-time tour winner in the 22 years the Washington area has hosted the event.

"It's something I've been dreaming about forever," the 29-year-old Scherrer said after carding a final-round 67 to reach 13-under for the event and clip a quintet of players by two strokes. "It's what every little kid tries to do. It's going to change my life, but it's not going to change me."

Scherrer's first major career-altering moment came eight years ago, when the strapping University of North Carolina graduate played his way into the finals of the U.S. Amateur at Muirfield (Dublin, Ohio). His opponent in the 36-hole final that year was a phenom from Dallas named Justin Leonard. That day belonged to Leonard, and the gritty Texan smoked the Tar Heel 8 and 7. From that day forward, Leonard became one of golf's can't-miss kids. Scherrer was viewed simply as Leonard's victim.

But the former high school hockey star from Skaneatles, N.Y., knew how to take a hit. He wanted to move on, and he needed to make a living, so he decided to turn pro, passing on an invitation to the 1993 Masters. For the next seven years, he bounced back and forth between the Nike Tour and the big time, finally earning enough money ($427,849) on the PGA Tour last year to keep his card.

Yesterday, his old nemesis returned to confront him again. As Scherrer made the turn at 10-under, there was Leonard's name at 12-under atop the leader board.

"I was a little worried about that," Scherrer said. "I'm like, 'This guy is going to do it to me again.' "

But Leonard, who made an uncharacteristic number of mental mistakes all week, drove into the hazard on the par-4 12th en route to a double bogey. The 1997 champion then followed that miscue with a yanked 4-iron into the hazard on No. 13, effectively ending his bid for a second Kemper crown.

"I made two bad swings, and it cost me three shots," Leonard said after a closing 69. "That's probably going to be the difference."

But the real difference was Scherrer's superior shot-making. This was not the same semi-fragile player Leonard dispatched in the '92 Amateur. After near-misses at the Michelob Championship (tied for fifth) last year and Tucson Open (tied for second) this year, Scherrer arrived at TPC at Avenel perhaps sensing a breakthrough.

His pro-am partners Wednesday reminded him the Kemper Open had a history of first-time champions. They told him it was his week. And as Scherrer walked through the clubhouse day after day, he started to believe it.

"I'd kind of walk through the locker room every day, and I'd see pictures of Freddie [Couples winning for the first time] when he was just a baby he looks like 22 or 23," Scherrer said, listing the members of the Kemper's breakout club. "I saw Norman, Stuart Appleby and Rich Beem. I just kind of got some momentum and said, 'Gee, if those guys can do it, I ought to be able to do it.' "

Perhaps that confidence was momentarily shaken when Scherrer, then tied with Steve Lowery at 13-under, hit his approach at No. 15 right and long and followed with a hideous block off the 16th tee. But while Lowery was bogeying the 15th behind him with a pulled putt from eight feet, Scherrer was pulling himself together.

"I kind of got on myself a little bit after those shots," Scherrer said. "I said, 'You can't do this. You've worked too hard. You've just got to trust your swing.' "

Scherrer took his own counsel and converted it into some brilliant course management. He made a stunning par save from the right rough on No. 15, holing a 10-footer practically nobody in the record 50,000-fan gallery expected him to convert. And after the atrocious drive at the 16th, which finished some 40 yards right of the fairway under a TV crane, Scherrer calmly hit his approach into the front right bunker and splashed out to four feet. With the jitters seemingly behind him, Scherrer dead-centered the short putt and marched to the 17th tee with his one-stroke lead over Lowery intact.

He carded a safely-played par on the treacherous 17th green and blasted a 3-wood down the center at the 18th, placing all the pressure on the 39-year-old Lowery behind him.

As has been the case for most of Lowery's career, which includes just one tour victory (1994 International), the soft-spoken Alabama native wasn't quite steely enough to handle the stress. He missed a 15-footer for birdie at the 16th and effectively bowed out of the tournament at the 17th. Like a host of hapless Kemper suitors before him, Lowery challenged the sucker pin on the 195-yard, water-guarded par-3, pushing a 6-iron just far enough to earn a tournament tombstone.

"I was trying to make birdie," said a dejected Lowery, who resided at or near the top of the Kemper leader board for 70 holes before finding the water off the 17th and posting a bogey. "I'm not standing there trying to play it safe. But I wasn't trying to hit it right of the flag like I did… . I played aggressive all day, so I don't hang my head."

Scherrer heard the moan accompanying Lowery's watery downfall as he walked off the 18th tee. He knew he had a two-shot lead, hit a 9-iron safely to the back portion of the green and carefully closed out the tournament with a two-putt par from 15 feet.

Minutes later, the bagpipes were blaring, and another unheralded hero was bestowed with the tournament's coveted crystal.

"Oddly enough, I remember at the Players Championship [March 23-26] this year where we would eat, there was a trophy room of all the trophies from every tournament," said Scherrer, who can stuff his Waterford vase with $540,000 and his schedule with two year's-worth of PGA Tour playing privileges. "I remember looking at them and thinking, 'That Kemper Open one is really nice, really big and crystal. That's one of the better looking one's in there.' So here I am a few months later, and I've got it… . About eight years for an overnight success."

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