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Clearwater's Kraft enjoys perks of first official PGA win

“In 15 years, I’ve played in the last group maybe 10 or 12 times. I’ve had the lead maybe six times. It all helped. I was as confident in the last group as you can be,’’ Greg Kraft said of his first official PGA win.

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“In 15 years, I’ve played in the last group maybe 10 or 12 times. I’ve had the lead maybe six times. It all helped. I was as confident in the last group as you can be,’’ Greg Kraft said of his first official PGA win.

It was not the golf story of the day. Tiger Woods, Geoff Ogilvy and some of the other top players in the world were stealing headlines in the WGC-CA Championship at Doral Sunday.

But on the same day in the resort town of Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, Clearwater's Greg Kraft was busy putting the finishing touches on his first official PGA Tour win since turning professional in 1986. Kraft, 43, shot 14-under 274 at the inaugural Puerto Rico Open to beat Jerry Kelly and Bo Van Pelt by one shot.

The win made the grind of 15 years on the PGA Tour worth it. It also brought a flood of calls and e-mails that has made the last few days rather hectic.

"It's a good problem to have,'' Kraft said.

Long time coming

This is not the first time Kraft has raised a trophy. He won the 1993 Deposit Guaranty Golf Classic in Mississippi, but it was not an official event because it took place the same week as the Masters and was considered a "second-tier'' tournament.

While Sunday's win still didn't earn Kraft a slot in the Masters (it was not a full field event since the WGC was the same week), it was at least an official event and the largest single week paycheck he has earned. Kraft won $630,000, more than he has made on the PGA Tour since 2003 combined. He has vaulted to 27th on the official money list with $690,764 in three tournaments, including a tie for 48th at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and tie for 19th in the Mayakoba Golf Classic at Riviera Maya-Cancun. And more important, he has earned a full exemption on the tour through 2010, which means no more Nationwide Tour events or qualifying schools.

"It's huge,'' said Kraft, who will not play again until the Verizon Heritage on April 17 in Hilton Head, S.C. "I'll be 44 (April 4) and now I'll be out there until I'm 46 or 47. And who's to say I'm not going to be playing well then. The Nationwide Tour is not any fun. It's small towns, the tour doesn't help it too much. You basically go there to starve. Your expenses are higher on the Nationwide Tour than they are on the big tour and you're playing for one-twentieth the money. It kind of beats you up.''

Grinding it out

Kraft has always been a grinder. Ever since he joined the PGA Tour in 1992, he has had to battle to remain in the coveted top 125 to retain his card. Even in 1993, with his win in Mississippi and a second at the Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic, Kraft was 60th on the money list with $290,581.

His best season was in 1999, when he earned $810,777 and finished 52nd on the money list. Overall, he has entered 379 PGA events and finished in the money 203 times. His exempt status this year is as a veteran member, which enables him to play in certain events.

He said it was experience that helped him in Puerto Rico.

"I was so comfortable with where I was,'' Kraft said. "That was the best part. In 15 years, I've played in the last group maybe 10 or 12 times. I've had the lead maybe six times. It all helped. I was as confident in the last group as you can be.''

He was also confident in 1993, but he didn't figure the drought would be so long. And he didn't figure on having to take a major detour.

Valley fever

It was February 2002, and Kraft had just finished in a tie for sixth at the Tucson Open. He went to Doral in Miami the next week and started feeling weak. He withdrew from the next two tournaments, but blood tests found nothing.

When the weakness continued, he went back to his doctor, who told him he had every symptom of lymphoma, a form of cancer. He underwent chemotherapy and even had a section of lung removed.

But later biopsies proved he was misdiagnosed. Finally, it was determined Kraft had valley fever, a fungal infection that becomes active when it is stirred up in soil and breathed into the lungs. Kraft likely contacted it while at the Tucson Open. He sued the PGA Tour and the venue that hosted the Tucson Open, but he later dropped the suit.

His promising career was at a standstill at the age of 38. He earned only $71,756 in 2003 and was 220 on the money list. In 2004, he played in only five events combined between the Nationwide and PGA tours. He spent all of 2005 on the Nationwide Tour, where he finished 26th on the money list and won the Northeast Pennsylvania Classic.

Kraft got his PGA Tour card back in 2006 when he finished tied for 18th at the qualifying school. He failed to remain fully exempt for 2007, and split time between the Nationwide and PGA last season.

Then came his breakthrough in Puerto Rico, just his third tournament of 2008.

"I'm still not as strong as I need to be,'' Kraft said. "I used to work out very aggressively and I haven't been able to do that as much since then. I'm still working on gaining strength.''

Another setback

It didn't appear any of this would be possible three weeks ago. Kraft was looking forward to trying to qualify for the PODS Championship in Palm Harbor, but he had to put those plans on hold.

"I caught the flu and had to pull out of the qualifier for the PODS,'' Kraft said. "I went down (to Puerto Rico) kind of depressed because two weeks ago I was as ready as I could be. Then I couldn't qualify for my hometown tournament. I couldn't leave the house for eight days. I was really rusty.''

Through all the adversity, Kraft never thought about putting away his clubs.

"I would never quit, I can't quit,'' he said. "I love it. I love the grind. I love the practice. I love to get better. I get so much satisfaction spending a day on the range and figuring out one little thing. This is what I've always wanted to do, I was born to do. I love it. I don't want to do anything else.''

Hometown boy

Kraft was born in Detroit but attended Brandon High School. He played college golf at the University of Tampa and resides in Clearwater. His home course is Largo's Belleair Country Club, where they are fully aware of his PGA exploits.

Director of golf Jim Slattery plans to make a banner to hang at the course. Slattery said Kraft played a couple of rounds at Belleair before leaving for Puerto Rico. Slattery has known Kraft since the salad days, when both played on satellite tours such as the Space Coast Tour, the Tommy Armour Tour and the Florida Tour in the late 80s.

"You'd pay your $250-$350 entry fee and the winner would get $5,000,'' Slattery said. "The tournaments were stacked with like 125 players. We'd stay in $12 a night hotels.

"But he was such a great putter and ball striker. It doesn't surprise me that he's done what he's done.''

Rodney Page can be reached at page@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8810.

Clearwater's Kraft enjoys perks of first official PGA win 03/26/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2008 8:56am]

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