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Published: Wednesday, 8/11/2004

Lessons learned on long road to PGA


HAVEN, Wis. There are seven taverns and no golf courses for the 1,500 residents of Oquawka, Ill., where the main drag empties, so to speak, directly into the Mississippi River.

Pretty good odds if you like to drink, said Todd Hamilton, who grew up there and had to drive 15 minutes or so to the nearest golf course.

The odyssey that began in Oquawka and found glory at Royal Troon continues this week in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

Hamilton s odyssey included more than a decade on tours in Asia and Japan, a couple years playing in Canada, a year on the Nationwide Tour, a few lean winters in Oquawka, and eight tries during a 17-year span at qualifying for a PGA Tour card.

Finally, late last year, Hamilton earned PGA Tour playing privileges and, as a 38-year-old rookie, has seemed intent on making up for lost time.

He won the Honda Classic early this year and, one month ago, reached the pinnacle of his improbable journey by winning a four-hole playoff over Ernie Els for the British Open championship.

I m kind of glad that it took me a while to find out how to play golf, Hamilton said yesterday.

I think I appreciate it a little bit more than some guys who have won right away a year or two out of college and might think it s going to be easy for the rest of their careers.

I struggled to get my card. I tried eight times in 17 years and I always felt it was a learning process. I played golf in Japan for 12 years and it taught me how to win golf tournaments and it taught me patience, which served me well a couple weeks ago.

So I m kind of glad it happened the way it did.

Hamilton became the ninth different winner in the past nine major championships and said he wouldn t be surprised to see that streak continue this week for a couple of reasons.

First off, Whistling Straits is a first-time major venue and, said Hamilton, not many guys have played it to the extent that they can feel comfortable day in and day out on it.

The other reason, I think, is that there is not as big a gap [between the game s so-called elite and others] as what people might think.

A lot of times, all it takes is one good shot from you to win or one bad shot from the other person.

I saw that at the [British] Open. Ernie played great the whole day, but hit one bad shot at No. 17 in the playoff. That was the difference.

Hamilton had teed off first on the par-3 hole and, because of the way his ball lined up with the flagstick, it appeared from the tee box to be much, much closer than it actually was, he said. That may have forced Ernie to hit a shot he wasn t comfortable with, or maybe he thought he had to hit a lot better shot than he really needed to.

Hamilton, meanwhile, comes across as cool and calm, never out of his comfort zone. Maybe 17 years on golf s back roads paved the way to flat-line emotions between the ropes.

I m never worried about the expectations, he said. I m very hard on myself, so whatever anybody expects me to do, I probably expect more of myself.

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