Kraft edges Kelly and Van Pelt by one in Puerto Rico

March 23, 2008
PGA TOUR staff

RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Greg Kraft shot a 70 to outlast Bo Van Pelt on the final holes, finishing 14 under for a one-shot victory at the inaugural Puerto Rico Open presented by Banco Popular on Sunday.

Inside the Numbers
Kraft's Final Stats
Category Total Rank
Eagles 0 N/A
Birdies 20 T2
Pars 46 T41
Bogeys 6 T67
Double Bogeys 0 N/A
Other 0 N/A

Jerry Kelly (70), at No. 63 the highest-ranked golfer here, and Van Pelt (72) were second at Trump International Golf Club. Briny Baird (72) and Kevin Stadler (67) were another shot behind.

Kraft won the Deposit Guaranty Classic in Mississippi 15 years ago. Since it took place the same weekend as the Masters, however, it didn't count as an "official" win on the PGA TOUR.

The world's best were again elsewhere for Kraft's latest success, playing in the World Golf Championships-CA Championship in Florida, but this time his victory was bona fide.

"I wish I could describe how I feel," Kraft said. "Maybe justice."

Kraft earned $630,000 -- more than he's made on the PGA TOUR combined since 2003 -- and has secured playing privileges through 2010. He had played only two other PGA TOUR events this season, his best finish before now a tie for 19th at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico, which also came the week of a World Golf Championships tournament.

"All the work, rookie year, '91, '92, all the way to now. Ups and downs, I had chances to win" through the years, Kraft reflected.

Back at his previous title in 1993, the younger Kraft believed he deserved the win because "it was my time."

Fifteen years has a way of changing one's perspective.

"I enjoyed it, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't even compare to the way I feel now," he said.

The win brings Kraft flexibility. Since he'll no longer worry about chasing tournament opportunities, he'll work on conditioning to regain playing shape.

"I don't have to play the Nationwide Tour to get my card back. That's no fun, go out there and starve," he said.

It's been a long road back to the top for Kraft, who turns 44 in April.

He closed in on the TOUR's top 50 money winners a decade ago and looked to be entering the prime of his career. However, he contracted an illness, Valley fever, during the 2002 Tucson Open. The disease is caused by a fungus that gets stirred up in soil and attacks the lungs.

Kraft suddenly was losing strength and didn't know what was wrong. Doctors had trouble diagnosing the malady, even telling him he had cancer. He underwent painful chemotherapy and had a section of a lung removed.

Gradually, Kraft found his strength. This week in Puerto Rico, he rediscovered his championship game.

"That crystal trophy that I'll lug home," he said. "I'll look at that every day."

No one was steadier than Kraft. He went 29 straight holes without a bogey on the weekend until a meaningless mistake on the 72nd hole.

Kraft began Sunday a shot behind Van Pelt, who led after each of first three days.

Early on, Van Pelt seemingly locked down his own first TOUR win with a stunning eagle 3 on the fifth hole to grab a two-shot lead.

Still, Kraft stayed close with a birdie on No. 5. His chance came soon enough as Van Pelt had consecutive bogeys on the eighth and ninth holes to fall into a three-way tie for first with the back nine to go.

Kraft and Van Pelt had matching birdies on the 12th to stay tied at 14 under. Two holes later, Kraft moved in front for good after Van Pelt's bogey.

"It was frustrating because I knew how good I played all week," Van Pelt said.

Baird was part of that three-way tie for first. But Baird followed with four straight bogeys to fall from contention. He rallied back within a shot of Kraft after a period of three birdies in four holes, but that was as close as Baird could get.

Kraft wasn't about to bobble this one away. He cemented things with a birdie on the par-4 17th to open a three-shot cushion.

Divots: Puerto Rico's lone native golfer in the field Sunday, Miguel Suarez, finished 1 over par and tied for 61st. ... Van Pelt was trying to become the first first-time winner to go wire-to-wire since K.J. Choi won the Tampa Bay Classic in 2002. ... Organizers were pleased with the week's turnout, considering the event coincided with Holy Week ceremonies on this highly religious island.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved.