SENIOR PGA: Kohki Idoki overcomes three Champions Tour superstars

ST. LOUIS – Who would have expected this?

Three of the top stars in American golf were in position to win the 74th PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club on Sunday. None did.

The first major title of the year on the Champions Tour instead went to Kohki Idoki, a 5-foot 5-inch 136-pound Japanese golfer whose professional record was as unimpressive as England’s Roger Chapman, who came out of similar oblivion to win both the Senior PGA and U.S. Senior Open last year.

Idoki, 51, won two Japan PGA Tour events, in 1990 and 1993, and took his first win on his country’s Senior Tour last year. Those credentials barely got him into the Senior PGA field for the first time, and his play was too good for perennial contenders Kenny Perry, Jay Haas and Mark O’Meara. All had shortcomings of one sort or another.

O’Meara simply started too far back. His closing 65 on Sunday matched Idoki for low round of the tournament, but he came up three strokes short of Idoki’s 11-under-par 273 total for 72 holes and finished solo fourth.

Battle-hardened veterans Perry and Haas just couldn’t cope with back nine pressure. Haas, playing on a course he knew better than any player in the field, made three bogeys in a six-hole stretch on the back nine. That killed his hopes to win the title a third time, but 54-hole leader Perry had an even bigger collapse.

He started the final round with a two-shot lead on playing partner Haas and was up three on the field with six holes to go. That margin disappeared in a hurry. When Perry made double bogey at the par-3 13th and Idoki made birdie at the 14th they were tied at the top of the leaderboard.

“Kenny and I got wrapped up in each other for awhile,’’ said Haas, “but after the 13th hole we realized it wasn’t just the two of us.’’

Idoki’s 15-foot birdie putt at No. 17 gave him the lead for good and Perry’s hopes of catching him ended when he made bogey at the par-3 16th and then put his tee shot deep in the woods at the par-5 17th. Both Perry and Haas made birdies at No. 18 to edge O’Meara out of a share of second but those birds were too little, too late.

The story was Idoki who won $378,000 in his first trip to the United States but couldn’t talk about it much. Neither he nor his translator could barely speak English. Playing in the U.S. was as big a mystery to the constantly smiling Idoki as he was to the American players.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him hit a shot,’’ said Haas. `I don’t know anything about him.’’

Through his translator Idoki said he took up golf when he was 9 years old at a course in Osaka. Another Japan golfer in the Bellerive field, Joe Ozaki, has been his mentor in recent years.

“I prefer to just stay in Japan,’’ said Idoki, through his translator. “It’s one of the greatest things to become a PGA champion. I cannot think of anything more. I was surprised with the huge galleries on the course. I was very excited.’’

Idoki’s participation is uncertain, but most of the Senior PGA field is expected to compete in the Encompass Championship at North Shore Country Club in Glenview from June 17-23. It’ll mark the circuit’s first Chicago visit since 2002.