As Jay Don Blake accepted the large trophy for winning the University Hospital-Utah Open at Willow Creek Country Club Sunday afternoon, he could hardly speak.
True, he's a man of few words, but in this case he was choked up, overcome with emotion after one of the biggest golf victories of his life.Perhaps it was because after all these years of coming close (see chart), he had finally won the State Open he'd been competing in since he was a teenager. Or perhaps it had something to do with the six long years he had struggled to make the PGA Tour - where he is now doing quite well with more than $100,000 in earnings - and that he had come back home to win the Utah Open.
But there was more to it than all that. The past year has been a tough one for Blake, who has suffered the death of his father and gone through a painful divorce. Also, each year the Utah Open brings to mind the memory of 1985, when his older brother passed away the day of the second round and Blake gallantly came back for the final round only to lose in a playoff to Mike Reid.
Although most of the people in the gallery didn't know of Blake's recent personal troubles, many must have agreed with the man in the green shirt, bermuda shorts and flat cap, who, after Blake had teed off on the final hole, said, to no one in particular, "He deserves to win it."
The 29-year-old St. George native had led ever since Friday when he had rushed over from Denver just in time to tee it up, then proceeded to shoot a course-record-tying 64. He followed with a 71 Saturday to fall into a tie with Bob Betley, but came back with a 68 Sunday, which gave him a 2-shot victory over Betley, who had won the tournament in 1979.
Blake's 203 total is the lowest score since the tournament was changed to 54 holes.
"It was a great feeling to win the tournament, especially with my family here," said Blake, who had several friends and relatives watching, including his brother, Rick, who caddied for him, and his mother Ilene, who walked all three rounds with him. His two daughters had also been there for much of the tournament.
The victory earned Blake $20,000, which is the biggest paycheck of his life, topping a couple of $15,000 checks he's earned on the PGA Tour. But Blake couldn't say it was the biggest victory of his life. After all, he beat the country's top amateurs (who are now current touring pros, such as Hal Sutton, Bob Tway and Joey Sindelar) in the 1980 NCAA tournament.
"That was exciting," he said of the NCAA win, "but this is pretty close to it."
For the first time in five years and only the second time since the tournament came to Willow Creek in 1981, the tournament wasn't decided on the final hole.
Before the day began, it appeared that it would be one of the tightest finishes ever, with 21 playersbunched within five shots of the lead. However, it was pretty much a three-man contest, between Blake, Betley and young Arizona pro Tom Stankowski, who stayed with the leaders before bogeying 14, 15 and 16. Defending champion Perry Arthur came out of nowhere to jump into a tie for the lead at 11-under, but he fell just as quickly, hitting his second shot at No. 17 out of bounds.
Betley started off on fire, going 4-under after four holes with an eagle, a birdie, a par and a birdie. But Blake, who told his brother/caddy Rick before the round, "Let's go out and enjoy it today," remainedunruffled.
"I didn't let it bother me and I kept my patience," said Blake, who stayed within two, with birdies at 2 and 3.
Then at the par-3 5th hole, Betley, who had left his 6-iron home so he could carry a 1-iron, tried to cut a 5-iron in close and instead went under a tree. By the time he finished the hole he had a double-bogey and was back in a tie with Blake.
"I could never get back on line after that," said Betley, who kept hitting his shots weak and to the right.
Blake and Betley stayed together at 11-under, along with Stankowski, until both Betley and Stankowski bogeyed the par-5 10th hole. At No. 13, at about the same time Perry was dropping two strokes with his errant shot into the trees at 17, Blake moved to 12-under with a 10-foot birdie putt.
That gave Blake a 2-shot lead as Betley continued to just miss on his birdie attempts.
"I was trying to make a charge, but I could never get charged up," he said.
While Stankowski was bogeying the next three holes in the group just ahead, Blake and Betley continued to make pars. Then at the par-5 17th after Betley nearly chipped in for eagle, Blake chipped to within 3 feet and made the birdie to go ahead by 3, when Betley missed his birdie try.
That pretty much was the tournament and that's what one of Blake's friends thought when he tried to shake his hand on the 18th fairway.
"I told him `I've got a little bit to finish up.' I guess I'm superstituous. I wanted to make sure the job was done," said Blake.
Betley finally made a birdie at 18,but it made no difference since he was 2 shots ahead of a foursome who tied for third at 207. That group included Arthur, Bob Estes, Brian Fogt and Ron Vlosich. Another shot back at 208 were Keith Clearwater, Brian Claar, Gary Pinns and Stankowski.
Alan Pate, the former PGA player who played in the same group as Blake and Betley, had his troubles, struggling in with a 75 to finish in a tie for 14th at 211.
Former Utah State golfer Chris Jones captured low amateur honors, shooting 73 Sunday for a 220 total.
Blake said that although he hopes to do well on the Tour, he'd still like to try to come back and play in the Utah Open whenever he can. After all these years he's figured out how to win it.
"I've come close here quite a bit," he said. "But you think one of these times you're going to win and put your name on the trophy as the winner."
After years of coming close, Jay Don Blake finally came out on top in the Utah Open. Here are his top Open finishes of the last decade:
1988 1st _
1987 T-3rd 2
1986 T-5th 2
1985 T-2nd 0*
1983 2nd 3
1982 T-4th 1
1980 T-3rd 4
1979 T-6th 6
* Lost in playoff