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For veteran Wiebe, it's all about chances

“In my heart of hearts, I’d say I lost,” says Mark Wiebe, who let a three-shot lead with four holes left slip away. He tied for fifth.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

“In my heart of hearts, I’d say I lost,” says Mark Wiebe, who let a three-shot lead with four holes left slip away. He tied for fifth.

LUTZ — He was terrific, and then he was awful.

And, by the end, he was practically forgotten.

He was not the winner. That was Tom Watson, and he was already sitting in the scorer's trailer. He was no longer the challenger. That was Scott Hoch, and he was tossing his putter in the air on No. 18.

No, when the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am was nearing its end Sunday afternoon, Mark Wiebe was just another guy with a white visor, a red face and a dark mood.

My, this should have been his tournament. Goodness, this could have been his time.

For Wiebe, a journeyman for more than 20 years on the PGA Tour, his career was not simply reborn when he turned 50, it was practically reinvented.

He had played 499 tournaments on the PGA Tour and had won twice in the 1980s. And then, 10 days after becoming
eligible for the Champions Tour in September, Wiebe won a tournament. He won another last week. Sunday would have been three wins in 13 starts, a Tiger-like rate for geezers.

Except he didn't bring it home. In fact, he barely made it home.

A three-stroke lead with four holes to go, Wiebe eventually finished three behind Watson. And don't think this was a monumental Watson comeback, because it was far more of a colossal collapse.

"Did Tom win or did I lose?" Wiebe repeated the question. "In my heart of hearts, I'd say I lost."

Through the first 50 holes of his debut at TPC of Tampa Bay, Wiebe could hardly do wrong. He had just one bogey and was sitting comfortably at 12 under heading to the tee box at No. 15.

He pulled his first drive into the water. Teeing it up again, he hit his second drive close to the water, and it settled in a bunker. And the guy who had gone 30 holes without bogey was on his way to a triple.

If you were calculating his chances by the scoreboard, you might have thought Wiebe still had a shot at winning. But scoreboards do not weigh disappointment, and they cannot measure heartache.

The truth is, Wiebe was on his way to losing by the time he came off the 15th green. He had double bogey on No. 17 and another bogey on No. 18. He slipped to a tie for fifth place and probably kissed off about $175,000 worth of prize money in four holes.

"When you go from having a chance to win to not … it's really hard to tee it up," Wiebe said. "You try like hell and, you know, you can't win."

The real shame is Wiebe would have made a wonderful Outback champion. He does not have Watson's resume, and he might not have had Hoch's chance for a dramatic finish, but he was among the best stories in the field.

As much as the Champions Tour lives off big names on a final go-around, its purest heartbeat comes from guys such as Wiebe. A player who gets a second chance at a career he never had.

Not that Wiebe was a complete bust on the PGA Tour. He was a serviceable player for a very long time. From 1997 to 2001, he had nine top-10 finishes and averaged about $350,000 a year.

But age and a bum elbow began to conspire against Wiebe by 2002. He lost his tour card and spent most of his time trying to make a comeback on the Nationwide Tour.

Between the PGA and Nationwide, he missed the cut in 57 of the 70 tournaments he played. His average salary in 2002-06 was around $11,000, which works out to about a 97 percent pay cut from the previous five years.

The only thing that could save Wiebe was his birth certificate. His belly was hiding his belt line and it was hard to tell if his hair was more sandy or gray, but his career was getting younger by the day.

Elbow surgery had corrected his physical problems, and his son Gunner, a golfer at the University of San Diego, helped fix a flaw in his swing. All Wiebe needed was to hit his 50th birthday on Sept. 13 last year to become a new man.

He has gone from playing minor-league tournaments and hoping for sponsors' exemptions to becoming one of the hottest seniors around. Sunday's fifth-place finish put him over $1.1-million in earnings in his first seven months on the Champions Tour.

"I was more excited than I was bummed out I was turning 50," Wiebe said. "I had no idea what was in store for me. I had no idea how neat it was going to be to see all the guys I started with on the tour."

When looking at it from that perspective, maybe Sunday's collapse wasn't so bad after all.

It had been a long time since Wiebe had given away a tournament on the final day, and the pain was as real as he recalled. But at least he had a chance to win.

And, these days, that means more to Wiebe than ever before.

John Romano can be reached
at romano@sptimes.com.

For veteran Wiebe, it's all about chances 04/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 21, 2008 7:53am]
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