By Tim Price, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
SAN ANTONIO -- It’s over. And it’s beginning again.
The 14-consecutive weeks of an American winning on the PGA TOUR has come to a conclusion. It’s because Martin Laird of Scotland is out of an 11-month slump.
Laird, who has seen his game slowly erode since a runner-up finish at THE PLAYERS last May, shot an impressive round of 9-under 63 Sunday. That course record-tying score at TPC San Antonio’s AT&T Oaks Course gave him a two-shot win over Rory McIlroy at the Valero Texas Open.
His name joins those of Walter Hagen (1923), Byron Nelson (1940), Ben Hogan (1946), Sam Snead (1948, ‘48, ‘50), Arnold Palmer (1960-62) and Lee Trevino (1980) to be listed as a champion. With the win Laird moves to No. 18 in the FedExCup standings.
“I know it’s a famous tournament,” Laird said. “To come here and play the way I did today and have my name on (the trophy) beside all these other great names, it means a lot.”
It also gives him a spot in the Masters field. But he had no time to think about that with plenty of today’s top names to worry about. Besides McIlroy, Billy Horschel has a TOUR-best 21-straight cuts made and was the third-round leader after finishing second last week at the Shell Houston Open. Jim Furyk was in the final group with Horschel and Charley Hoffman.
Yet it was McIlroy, the world’s No. 2 golfer, who threatening Laird’s lead most. McIlroy was down by a stroke when he birdied the par-5 14th with a tap-in.
“I know how good Rory is,” Laird said. “But it doesn’t matter if it’s Rory or Jim or Billy. If someone’s behind me making birdies like they were, I know I’ve got to keep making birdies.
“That was a pretty strong leaderboard at the top three.”
Laird kept on making birdies. He had a bogey-free round, and he took the lead from Horschel with a 15-foot putt at the 12th.
Laird, who blamed most of his slump on his putting, had 22 putts Sunday. He switched back to a long putter that touches his belly this week -- the same putter he used to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard in 2011.
“It was automatic comfort with that putter on these greens,” Laird said. “Now, I’m wondering why I ever stopped using it.”
The putting woes contributed to Laird, 30, missing four of eight cuts this year and posting no previous finish in the top 30. Last year looked promising with a runner-up showing at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and a trip to the quarterfinals of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship. Then came the tie for second at The PLAYERS.
After that he missed six of his next 13 cuts. He was 157th in the FedExCup standings, right behind Steve Marino, with just 63 points on the year. Now he’s a lock to make the Playoffs after earning 500 points this week and will now be looking looking to improve on his 20th-place finish the last time he played The Masters in 2011.
He averted disaster today at 14, the par 5 McIlroy would birdie. It’s a hole playing 572 yards that he had birdied every day this week. Standing in the fairway after a gutted 305-yard drive, his shot into the green from 248 yards was so far right it sailed past the bunker and settled behind a scoreboard. He got relief and had a good lie but left the chip in the bunker. He blasted up close and saved par.
He kicked it into gear with a birdie on No. 16 when he hit 17 feet past the pin at the 199-yard hole. McIlroy followed him with a birdie putt from just a bit closer, but the same part of the green.
He was ahead by one walking down the 17th when he was in the middle of two of his few iffy shots of the day. His tee shot landed in the long bunker to the right, and his approach from 66 yards was off the green to the left, just 16 feet away, but on the fringe back up against the cut of rough.
He went from a possible bogey to his second-straight birdie when he rolled it in.
At that point he had a two-shot lead, yet it was a commanding advantage going into the 18th. Among all par-5 finishing holes on the PGA TOUR, and there are 12 of them, AT&T Oaks Course’s 18th was the only one to play over par last year.
Laird could play it conservatively and know that McIlroy -- even though he had found the green in two and barely missed an eagle putt on Friday -- would have a difficult time erasing the margin. McIlroy parred the 17th, so when Laird didn’t miss the 18th fairway by much, his sand wedge got him back out to the fairway and left him 137 yards in.
It was a downhill putt once Laird got on, and he rolled it straight into the middle for the birdie. It was a three-stroke lead. McIlroy would have to find the hole from 252 yards out (after a drive of about 345 yards) to force a playoff.
“Martin just played too good today,” McIlroy said after that shot from the fairway found the green but was 50 feet away to set up a two-putt birdie. “I mean, a 63 out here in these conditions is phenomenal.”
The 14-straight wins by the Americans to open the 2013 season was the best since the 15 in a row in 1982.
Horschel and Furyk couldn’t extend it. Horschel was 1-over for the day until birdies at 15 and 18 got him back into the red.
“It’s satisfying that I had a chance to win, but I hit it awful on the first nine holes,” he said, and he needed five one-putt greens to keep from making it worse. “I hit it very pathetic.”
Furyk also had a difficult time getting anything going. He was even after nine holes and birdied the 13th, but when he eagled No. 18 with a hole-out from 104 yards it still had him three short of Laird and in a three-way tie for third with Horschel and Hoffman.
“I had trouble getting it going,” Furyk said. “It wasn’t a bad ball-striking week, but I wouldn’t say it was really crisp. But to come in here and finish third and hit a lot of good shots and play well and finish on a high note on 18, much better.”
But none were better than Laird.