Golf / Sports

Ben Crane earns wire-to-wire St. Jude Classic win

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- He tossed and turned Saturday night, unable to get more than a few hours of sleep. Ben Crane held a four-stroke lead in the rain-plagued FedEx St. Jude Classic with 30 holes to play and couldn't find the peace and serenity he needed to unwind.

"I got maybe an hour-and-half of sleep," Crane said. "I woke up for two hours. All I was doing was being nervous. I was thinking, 'How do I slow my heart down?' I was so nervous, so excited."

The mental calmness he found so elusive late Saturday night and early Sunday morning returned as he walked back on the course at TPC Southwind. During the final round of the $5.8 million PGA Tour event Sunday, Crane found the fairways and greens as comfortable as a pillow-top bed.

Although he watched his four-stroke advantage shrink to one and even though he failed to make a birdie in the 29 holes he played tee-to-green Sunday, the Texan and soon-to-be Tennessean never lost faith. Or the lead.

Crane used a conservative closing-round 3-over-par 73 to finish at 10-under 270 for a one-stroke victory over Troy Merritt. Merritt, who was seeking his first tour win, closed with a 71 for 271.

Crane, 38, led wire-to-wire to become the first to accomplish the feat at the FESJC since Lee Westwood in 2010. He also became the first player on the PGA Tour to win without a final-round birdie since Justin Leonard in 2005, also at TPC Southwind.

"I don't think I've ever led wire to wire," Crane said. "That's very difficult to do. But, man, is it fun."

Following a season in which he was limited with back problems -- and uncertain at one point he'd play any golf this year -- Crane found himself in a mild state of disbelief after Sunday's victory, the fifth of his career and first in three years.

"I'm amazed," Crane said. "I had not played well all year. I was making some swing changes (to alleviate back issues). I was trying to (take) baby steps to work toward long-term (success). I was just hoping to be in the playoffs this year."

Instead, he outlasted a deep, talented field that included Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Westwood, Graeme McDowell and Zach Johnson to collect a $1.044 million prize and the confidence to play at the level he once did.

"This is going to really help me going forward, with my game and the changes I've made to my swing," he said. "I'd really like to be a Steve Stricker. I'd love to be a guy whose career blossoms in his late 30s and well into his 40s.

"This is an incredible day and an incredible week for me and I hope to build on it."

Crane opened the fourth round at midmorning with a three-stroke cushion that was trimmed to one after he bogeyed No. 9. Merritt, playing one group ahead of Crane, remained one back until he bogeyed 15. Merritt missed a three-foot putt for par on the hole and never got any closer until Crane played the 18th in conservative fashion.

Aware he had a two-stroke lead at 18, Crane aimed a hybrid approach at the right bunker after hitting his drive into the right rough about 190 yards from the pin.

"That's exactly where I wanted it," he said. "I felt I could get it up on the green within 15 feet and two-putt for the win. So the strategy worked out perfect."

Crane's caddie, Joel Stock, called preserving the lead for 30 holes Sunday "a grind."

"It's hard enough to have the lead for 18 holes," Stock said. "To try and hang on for 30 was tough."

Stock said Crane got a boost from his first shot Sunday. Returning to resume the weather-shortened third round, he chipped in for a birdie at No. 7.

"That had a nice little feel to it to start the day," Stock said.

There was a reason Crane never became flustered with a birdie-less final round.

"Our goal this week was to be committed to our mental system," said Stock, his longtime caddie and former college teammate at Oregon. "Our goal was to just improve this week. It wasn't about worrying where you place in the tournament. It was to walk away having improved."

After having missed the cut in four of the past five tournaments -- and with only one top 10 finish in 16 events -- Crane said he didn't envision his fortune making such a dramatic turn.

"If someone had said, 'Hey, you can finish 30th this week, will you take it?' All day, all day. I'll take that and run, so first place is amazing."

(c)2014 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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