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Pal helps Huston to Doral win

There is no sanctuary inside the ropes, not when thousands of players line the fairway and surround the greens. But John Huston still felt lonely.

He arrived at the first tee Sunday for the final round of the Doral-Ryder Open, confident about his chances for victory despite trailing by four shots. Then he learned he would have to do it by himself.

Fred Couples suffered a back injury that forced him to withdraw, leaving Huston to go at Doral's "Blue Monster" without a playing partner.

"I didn't know what to think of it," Huston said. "I was having a hard time pacing myself. But if you hit it 2 feet from the hole and tap in, you're right at the next tee."

Exactly. Knock it close, and what is there to worry about? Huston did that all day, shooting a 6-under-par 66 to race by a faltering Billy Andrade and claim the third victory of his PGA Tour career.

All three have come in Florida _ and that doesn't include a victory at the 1988 JCPenney Classic at Bardmoor Country Club in Largo _ for Huston, 32, a Dunedin High grad who lives in Tarpon Springs.

Huston won $252,000 from the $1.4-million purse and shot to the top of the tour money list with $396,800. Huston, who plays out of the Innisbrook-Hilton Resort, now has four top-10 finishes in six tournaments this year.

"I felt really good coming into today," said Huston, who finished the tournament at 274, 14 under par, and three shots ahead of Andrade and Brad Bryant. "In the last year or so, I felt I had three or four good chances to win and didn't. This was a long time coming. To finally get over the hump and win is really a good feeling."

The victory was not nearly as large as it appears. Andrade, who led by two over Larry Nelson when the day began, had a two-shot lead at the turn but fell behind the hot Huston, who birdied three straight starting with No. 9.

When Huston birdied the 17th hole, he led Andrade by two strokes, and kept that advantage when he saved par from a bunker at the par-4 18th. But Andrade knocked his approach shot at the par-4 17th 3 feet from the cup _ for what appeared to be a cinch birdie that would have pulled him within one shot with one hole to play.

"I choked it," said Andrade, whose short putt did not even hit the hole. "I flat pushed it. That was it. I really wanted to birdie 17 and give myself an opportunity at 18."

Andrade followed with a bogey at the 18th to shoot 73 and drop into a tie for second with Bryant. Both players won $123,200.

A day earlier, when Andrade shot 66 to take the third-round lead, he played with Huston and marveled at how well he played.

"He is absolutely bombing his drives like you've never seen," Andrade said of Huston. "It's kind of a joke. Every hole is really easy when you're hitting it as far as he is."

The difference between Saturday and Sunday for Huston was better iron play and good putting. He rolled in a 25-footer for birdie at the third hole, then knocked a sand wedge within 2 feet for a birdie at the fifth. After gambling by going for the green at the par-5 eighth and hitting in the water for a bogey, Huston came back with three straight birdies.

That's when he was given some company on the course. As the round began, Huston was asked if he would like to have a non-competing marker play with him. The idea is to have some companionship, get help with the pace of play and perhaps learn a few things from the other player.

Huston was fortunate enough to have friend Brian Claar join him. Claar, who lives in Palm Harbor, had finished his round with a 73. He was asked if he would accompany Huston, and caught up with him at the 12th tee.

"Mind if I join you?" Claar said as he stepped inside the ropes. "I was trying to not get in his way but make it easier for him. It was actually kind of embarrassing. No one knew what was going on. They're saying, "Hey, that's not Couples. Who is that? Did this guy just jump out there?' It was a weird feeling.

"I think he owes it all to me."

Claar was kidding, but Huston was thankful to have him there. Coming down the stretch, trying to win a tournament, can get lonely. But Huston made birdies at the 15th and 17th holes.

"When Brian came along, that really helped out," Huston said. "I was very happy to see him."

Note: Couples suffered a lower back injury while warming up on the driving range and it put in doubt his ability to defend his Honda Classic title next weekend in Ft. Lauderdale.

"I was swinging on the range and everything felt great," Couples said. "I hit one ball and it felt like my back exploded. I stood there and absolutely could not move."

Staff member Mike Ploski indicated the injury could be serious.

"I'm very disappointed," Couples, 34, said. "This is the first time in 14 years that I am not able to finish a tournament. I hope to defend my title next week, but at this point I'm not sure of anything."

Elsewhere

Mediterranean Open: Jose Maria Olazabal ended a two-year winless streak in a sudden-death playoff in Torrevieja, Spain.

Olazabal defeated Paul McGinley on the second extra hole after they finished the regulation 72 holes tied at 276.

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