Frank Lickliter II used his last lick to bury his reputation as a bridesmaid.
Slamming the brakes on a stretch-run slide, Lickliter stroked home a gut-rending 8-footer for par on the 72nd hole of the rain-ravaged 34th Kemper Open yesterday at TPC at Avenel in Potomac, claiming his first Tour victory by one stroke over 26-year-old rookie J.J. Henry.
“It’s been a long time coming, and it’s finally here,” said Lickliter, who followed his final putt to the cup and pointed at it Tiger-style as it disappeared to secure his 16-under 268 total and $630,000. “It took me longer than I thought it would take me to win, but it’s awesome. It’s just incredible.”
Most of the several hundred fans gathered around the 18th green to watch the first extra day of play in the event’s history would undoubtedly echo Lickliter’s amazement. Not because the 31-year-old native of Middleton, Ohio, is a stunning upstart cloaked in the anonymity that has shrouded past Kemper first-timers like Tom Scherrer (2000) and Rich Beem (1999). No, Lickliter’s closing putt heroics were singularly remarkable because of his reputation as a suspect finisher and the 30-minute swoon that preceded his masterstroke.
Lickliter began the day tied with Henry at 16 under. The pair had forged a four-stroke edge on the field in a soggy marathon of a week plagued by six rhythm-breaking stoppages in play because of thunderstorms. Mercifully, Mother Nature was in fine form for Memorial Day, so when the two returned to resume their fourth rounds at 9 a.m. yesterday, there would be no more distractions from their impending duel.
Lickliter began on the 10th green and two putted from 18 feet for a ho-hum par. Five holes ahead, Henry laced a drive down the 15th fairway and posted a solid warm-up par of his own. But Henry blinked first. A cut drive at the 16th resulted in a nearly impossible approach from the trees and a three-putt bogey from the front right edge of the green to the back left pin position. Henry followed his missed 8-footer for par at the 16th with a gutsy approach to the water-guarded 17th. But once again, Henry came up short, leaving his downhill, 10-foot birdie bid six inches short. The trend repeated itself on the 18th; Henry’s 20-footer for birdie slid past on the low side.
Henry glanced up at the scoreboard and saw that Lickliter birdied the difficult 12th and the short 14th to move to 18 under. Finished at 15 under, Henry, assuming that not one, but all three of his round-concluding putts would have had to drop to keep him in contention, headed to the clubhouse for a consolation lunch.
“I made a couple of mistakes here and there. I was a little nervous. But as far as being my time to really have a chance to win, I thought as a whole I held up pretty good,” said Henry, now $378,000 richer and almost certain to keep his Tour card for next year. “Obviously, I was trying to win the golf tournament. But at the same time in the back of my mind it was, worst case, trying to lock up my card for next year. I think I did a lot toward doing that today. Now I can just go out and have fun the rest of the year, play my game, and hopefully good things will happen.”
Good things started to happen for Henry while he was munching in the clubhouse.
Lickliter came to the Kemper with a nasty habit of fading at the finish line. In his five-plus years on Tour, he had 23 top-10 finishes without a victory. None of those near-misses was as painful as his playoff loss to Phil Mickelson at the Buick Invitational in February. There Mickelson fanned his drive into a hazard, but Lickliter made the dubious decision to follow Mickelson’s mistake with a driver of his own instead of a more conservative play. Predictably, Lickliter followed Mickelson into the hazard and lost the hole and the tournament to Mickelson’s double bogey.
Yesterday, Lickliter’s past failures began stealing up on him at the 16th tee. He raked his drive left, punched out of the heavy rough short of the green, pitched up and two-putted from 12 feet for bogey. He played his 6-iron to the par-3 17th safely away from the front right sucker pin and wound up on the upper left tier of the green. But after he watched playing partner Bradley Hughes leave his putt short from almost the same position, Lickliter ran his 40-foot approach putt some four feet past. He and his caddie Tony Lingard disagreed on the read for the comebacker. Lickliter went with Lingard’s right edge read, and the putt never broke.
The bogey dropped him to 16 under, and suddenly Lickliter’s seemingly insurmountable lead was down to one. Henry watched the miss from the clubhouse in semi-disbelief and then headed to the range in the event of a playoff. Several members of Lickliter’s stunned gallery murmured the name of Mark Wiebe, who gave away the 1997 Kemper when he missed consecutive 30-inch putts on the event’s closing holes.
After a perfect drive on the 18th, Lickliter selected a 7-iron and surprisingly attacked the treacherous back left pin position.
“I didn’t look at any other place except the pin. I wasn’t looking two feet right,” said Lickliter, explaining the same aggressive approach that cost him so dearly at the Buick Invitational.
He expected the shot to fade slightly, but it never did and his ball nestled into the trampled rough 16 feet left of the pin. That left him an awkward lie and little green with which to work.
“It’s where everybody’s been walking off the green,” Lickliter said. “That’s where [Ben] Hogan said you never want to miss it, because the grass is going away from the hole. And that’s exactly what I had.”
Lickliter’s flop shot from position Z came out slightly heavy and just trickled onto the green some eight feet above the cup. He grunted, and Lingard slumped noticeably before handing Lickliter his putter. After such a finish bogey, bogey, incredibly ugly nobody clustered around the green expected Lickliter to make the putt. A handful of fans started to retreat to the 18th tee to secure quality viewing spots for the anticipated playoff. But with every face in the place grimacing, Lickliter calmly put the kibosh on his collapse.
“I knew it was going to break left because I actually had that putt a couple of years ago,” Lickliter said of the putt that made him the tournament’s 12th first-time PGA Tour winner. “I just trusted myself. I [was just trying] to get totally back in the moment. And for some reason, I did it extremely well right there. Even after everything that had happened that last half an hour, I had no thoughts except reading that putt and making it… . That’s not how I wanted to finish. It wasn’t pretty. It didn’t feel pretty. But that putt on the last hole sure felt good.”