Owen/Clarke win Labor Day Tournament

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 3, 2012

SALISBURY – Thirty-nine holes of pressure-filled golf, a dose of scattered showers and looming darkness couldn’t get the best of Chris Owen and Ken Clarke on Monday.
The Salisbury tandem withstood every challenge Mother Nature and co-finalists David and Phil Miller threw their way to capture this year’s Labor Day Tournament at the Country Club of Salisbury.
“I told Ken I was gonna run and jump in his arms if we won, but I was trying to hold it together so we could congratulate the Millers,” Owen said after he and Clarke prevailed 1-up in a championship-round victory that wasn’t secured until the weekend’s final stroke. “We ended up having a long embrace. It just meant that much to us.”
Clarke was fighting back tears after he and Owen avenged a 2009 final-round loss to Phil Miller and Jim Christy – another nailbiter that wasn’t decided until the final hole. “I more or less feel honored because there are so many great golfers in Rowan County,” he said shortly after the 8 p.m. finish. “I always read about this tournament in the paper and thought maybe someday, but I’d have to get a lot better. It’s such a great, storied tradition and it’s so hard to win.”
This one was especially difficult. Owen and Clarke had to rally from two-down to beat defending champs Joey Boley and Richard Cobb, 2-and-1, in the morning’s semifinals. Against the Millers they used 14 pars and four birdies to gain their first title. It wasn’t cemented until Phil Miller misfired on a 15-foot putt for birdie on the 18th hole – a shot that would have tied and extended the match.
“I honestly thought it was in,” he said afterward. “But the dew on the green made the ball slow down. It was a perfect line.”
The start of the championship match was delayed until nearly 4 p.m. by lightning and rain, but once underway was never interrupted. Owen and Clarke won the first hole with pars, thanks largely to David Miller’s tee-shot that deflected off a tree on the left flank. More drama followed at No. 3 – where he struck another tree off the tee but recovered to drain a 30-foot putt for birdie. “It was a wild ride, that’s for sure,” David said.
Instead of squaring the match, his shot went for naught when Clarke matched it with a 10-foot birdie moments later. “I actually had that same putt against Cobb and Boley (earlier in the day),” Clarke said. “And it lipped out on the high side. So I knew to keep it within the hole and hit it firm. And it went in dead center.”
The Millers evened the score on the par-4 eighth hole when David connected on a bending, 35-foot putt for birdie. Then on 11 Phil sank a remarkable, 60-foot chip shot from a bunker for a par 4, earning a loud applause from a faithful following. “I would have been happy just to get it on the green,” he explained. “I was already in the rough on my second shot. It was a hope and a prayer. But I knew it was good as soon as I hit it.”
What followed moments later was equally important. Owen buried a 15-footer for birdie to put the eventual champions back on top. “And it was funny,” he said. “Just like Ken was just saying, I had missed that same shot in the semifinals. I looked at him and said, ‘I just had this putt.’ I knew it didn’t break so hit it dead center.”
One hole later they were two-up following Clarke’s 25-foot birdie. On 15 he did it again, rolling a six-footer downhill into the cup for a birdie. “We were two-up, but in ’09 we were two-up after 13 and one-up after 16,” he recalled. “Then Phil Miller and Jim Christy went birdie-birdie and beat us. So we weren’t taking anything for granted. We knew it wasn’t over.”
Phil Miller answered with a birdie on an off-balance, uphill, short kick-in, nullifying Clarke’s classic. “The way my feet were positioned,” Phil said, “it was like I was swinging a baseball bat.”
Phil Miller provided more magic when he converted a 30-foot, uphill birdie shot from the far edge of the green on 16, inching his team within striking distance. After both squads parred the 17th – and with rain falling, thunder clearing its throat in the distance and darkness at hand – club pro Randy Padavick consulted with all four golfers and offered to suspend the match. “I could see fine,” Phil Miller insisted. “I was the first to say, ‘Let’s keep going.'”
Added Owen: “Maybe if we were behind, we would have agreed to stop. But we couldn’t see as well as they couldn’t see.”
That set the stage for a memorable final hole. Darkness had arrived, the rain had strengthened, Owen and Clarke had parred out, and Phil Miller was the last man standing. When he shot settle just short, a long weekend of single-elimination drama was over.
“And that’s the way it should be,” David Miller said. “Coming down to the last hole, the last shot and maybe five minutes of daylight remaining – it doesn’t get better than that.”