- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 2, 2002

Gentleman, take your marks.
Thanks to the Saturday stumble of midpoint leader Greg Norman, the 35th Kemper Open has devolved into a one-round sprint with an absolute scrum cluttering the starting blocks at TPC at Avenel.
"It's wide open. It's anybody's to win," said Bob Estes, who stands precariously perched atop a crowded leader board with Bob Burns at 10under. "It looks like you're going to have a bunch of guys between 7 and 10under. With that many people clustered together, somebody is probably going to go low. I'd say it will take somewhere in the neighborhood of 14under to win, and there are probably a dozen guys who can get there."
Actually, there are 13 players at 7under or better, promising an exciting finish on a 7,005-yard, par-71 layout that becomes more difficult by the minute.
After two days of perfect scoring conditions, Avenel bared its teeth and bit back yesterday. Without the aid of the event's traditional afternoon thunder showers, five straight days in the baking sun had turned the layout into a emerald tarmac by the time Norman teed off at 10under yesterday afternoon.
Faced with a firmer, faster course and his first outright lead in a PGA Tour event since the 1996 Masters, Norman acted his age (47) for the first time all week, looking more like the Dolphin than the Shark.
After driving the ball so beautifully through the first 36 holes, Norman caught a nasty case of the hard lefts yesterday, scrambling his way to a 74 that could easily have been worse if not for some clutch putting. The nadir for Norman came on Avenel's 520-yard, sixth hole, a reachable par-5 that he played in seven costly strokes.
"No.6 took a lot of wind out of my sails," said Norman (7under), who hit a 5-iron second shot from 209 yards into the creek fronting the green and nearly baptized another ball from the drop area. "I thought my second shot was perfect there, but it came up just short, and that was very deflating. But I'm not out of this tournament by any stretch of the imagination. Hopefully, I got my bad round out of the way today, and I can come back tomorrow and shoot something in the mid-60s."
Among the 13 players at 7under or better, only 1997 champion Justin Leonard (7under) and 1996 contender Jay Williamson (9under) managed that feat both carding 67s. For most of the field, particularly those who played in the afternoon, survival was the order of the day.
"It's very hard to get the ball close to the hole when the greens are that firm," said Estes, who momentarily claimed the outright lead at 11under before a bogey at the par-3, 17th pushed him back to the pack. "I feel like I could be much better off, given the way I've struck the ball. But it's just difficult to make a lot of mid-range putts on these greens, because they're bumpy very firm and holding spike marks.
"That's not to say I'm displeased with conditions. I usually do better on hard, fast tracks. I have a low, penetrating ball flight with my woods, and when the fairways are firm, it will roll forever. I just hate wet golf courses."
With three Tour victories to his credit and the world's No.22 ranking, the 36-year-old Estes would certainly seem to be today's favorite. Unlike the other three players at 9under or better Burns, Williamson and Bob May Estes has slept on a Saturday lead before and still been able to smile about it come Sunday afternoon.
Williamson held the lead entering the final round of the 1996 event before reeling to a closing 79. May, who gained renown when he pushed Tiger Woods to the brink before losing in a playoff at the 2000 PGA Championship, might have proved his mettle under fire at Valhalla. Unfortunately, he has done almost nothing in nearly two years since that duel.
As for Burns, perhaps he is the biggest shock among the lead bunch. A 34-year-old journeyman who has bounced back and forth between several tours since 1991, Burns has never finished higher than fifth place on the PGA Tour. This season Burns has made 11 cuts in 14 starts but has only one top-20 finish (T18 Sony Open).
Asked yesterday if he had ever considered giving up the game, Burns good-naturedly replied, "I got nothing better to do. I haven't come up with anything that pays as well yet. I'm a professional golfer. It's what I do."
Though Burns might seem like the unlikeliest of champions still in the mix, his undecorated, even anonymous status makes him a perfect fit for a tournament famous for crowning first-time Tour winners. Ten of the tournament's last 19 winners and three straight have come to the Kemper without a victory on their resumes. And nobody on the property seems to have a more carefree approach to today's finale than Burns.
"Ten years ago, I had trouble sleeping if I was playing well in a tournament," he said. "Now I can kind of put that aside until I come back tomorrow. So, I think I'll be fine in that respect. I think it will be fun. It's always the guy with the lowest score that wins. It doesn't matter if he's had 25 victories or none."

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