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Third in hand, Baird feeling flush

Briny Baird wasn't expecting this.

Hoping? Sure. But when he teed off in Thursday's first round of the Chrysler Championship, a trip to next's year's Master's would have been very nice, thank you. All he had to do was finish among the top 40 in this year's PGA Tour winnings.

Next week's Tour Championship in Houston? Next year's U.S. Open in New York? That would be something. But that would mean finishing in the top 30 for the year.

And that meant finishing in the top 14 Sunday at Innisbrook. He'd done that in only eight of his 31 tournaments this year. Heck, he'd missed the cut in seven others.

And for the year, Baird was 35th. Houston as far away as, well, the seventh green at Innisbrook; 30th was foreign territory.

"I remember asking someone, "What does 30 mean other than you get to play one more tournament?' Maybe being my age, not having ever been in this position, that might have been part of my reason for asking," Baird said. "The other part may have been just trying to downplay it, make it a little easier on myself."

After three rounds, Baird, 31, found himself in the heady company of Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh, the final threesome in Sunday's fourth round, walking the fairway to No. 18. "It's different," he said. "It means you're playing really well, have a shot at winning.

"I thought 1 over (for the tournament) would get me in the top 30. I figured somewhere around there would be cutting it close. But coming into the (final) round I'm thinking, "I've got a really good chance to win this thing.' Finishing third, I feel great. I haven't too many top fives in my career."

His $326,400 paycheck gave him $2,070,669 in winnings, nearly $10,000 more than everything he earned in six years on the PGA and Nationwide tours. More important, it vaulted him 13 spots in total winnings from 35th to 22nd.

Houston beckons.

"I don't have a plane ticket; I don't have a hotel room. Nothing," Baird said with a smile. "I'll deal with it. I think they'll find something for me."

He could have finished higher. One stroke better and he would have earned $96,000 more, splitting the runner-up check with Singh.

But he blew that on No. 17 with a bogey-4 that put him two shots behind Singh. He made it back on No. 18. Baird was philosophical: "It was a great feeling to make a birdie on the last hole. The way I look at it, it's a wash."

It's a stretch, but he really blew a shot at winning the whole thing at No. 7. Baird began the day two strokes behind Goosen. They matched shots for six holes, then Baird took a double-bogey 6.

"I hit a poor three-wood left," he said. "It wasn't really a tough shot out of the rough but I had a clump behind me that grabbed the hosel of the club (that connects the head to the shaft) and I hit a tree. I didn't think I'd come close to it. Caught just one branch _ it looked like more leaves than anything _ and threw it into another tree.

"From there I had nothing. I hit a decent shot about 30 feet. That's about all you can do out of that rough _ you can't spin the ball _ and then had about as bad a two-putt as you can ask for."

Baird's misfortune carried over to No. 8. He bogeyed it. Three strokes lost in two holes put him at third with a five-stroke gap behind Goosen.

"It's hard to maintain your focus," he said. "A bogey you can handle; a double's giving away a lot. You can't get it back on a golf course like this. No way. The course is too tough.

"If you'd have told me coming into the week (I'd have) a third-place finish, I'm not saying I'd take it, but I'd say, "Nice week.' I didn't throw away a golf tournament; I didn't play well enough to win a golf tournament.

"Had it been a different situation when maybe that putt on 17 cost me a chance to win the tournament, that would have been different. I'm glad that's not going to come back to haunt me."