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Golfer Bill Haas' Humana Challenge victory is pure escapist fare

Bill Haas, who's become known for his Houdini act, pulls off another one to win Humana Challenge by a shot

There is nothing pretentious about pro golfer Bill Haas, except his tendency to get out of tight spots when big money is on the line.

It's time to nickname him. No more just-plain-Bill.

How about Houdini? Or, failing that, Rockefeller?

This annual desert dance, a.k.a. the Humana Challenge golf tournament, came down to the last hole, and a couple of last swings by Haas on Sunday at LaQuinta. It was a finish flush with story angles and drama.

Haas, 32, son of longtime pro star Jay Haas and great nephew of 1968 Masters champion Bob Goalby, stood on the 18th tee at the Palmer Private Course and peered into the distance. On the green, some 550 yards away, was the 11th-ranked player in the world and the highest-ranked player in this tournament, Matt Kuchar.

Haas was 22 under par and had a one-shot lead. Kuchar was 21 under and had about a 10-footer for a birdie that would tie Haas.

Haas waited for the roar that would signify the birdie. None came. Kuchar's putt had barely missed.

That meant that all Haas had to do to win was to make par, just drive it safely, lay up comfortably, and wedge his third shot into two-putt territory.

If you had watched Haas all day Sunday, that seemed a lock. He had taken the lead with an eagle on the par-five sixth hole and added three birdies on the way in, as well as two gut-wrenching par putts on the 15th and 17th, both par threes.

He smiled his way from tee to green. There was no hint of feeling pressure, of impatience, of getting too high or too low.

And then he swung on the 18th tee.

"I was doing everything I could to not go left," he said afterward, alluding to the water there and laughing at himself. "So what do you do? You go right."

More precisely, right onto the fringe of a fairway trap. Had he been able to get a stance there, that would have been OK.

"I'm not good at anything left-handed," he said, dismissing that option, while undoubtedly letting thoughts creep in about a playoff in the waning late-afternoon daylight with five other players.

He decided to climb down into the trap, choke up on an eight-iron and take a swing at a ball resting about waist high in the fringe grass at the top of the trap.

"I knew if I made par, I was going to win," Haas said. "That second shot became pretty key. I could have easily whiffed it, chunked it and moved it five yards. . . ."

Instead, with a semi-baseball swing, he moved it 82 yards down the fairway, where he took out the same eight-iron and hit it 170 yards, over the water, to within two-putt range, 15 feet.

"It felt like a train wreck, something bad was about to happen," Haas said, reliving his decision-making over the trap shot.

It took no less than former President Bill Clinton, here as part of the sponsoring Clinton Foundation and making the trophy presentation afterward on the 18th green, to capture the difficulty of what Haas had done.

"You deserve a world of credit," said Clinton, a golfer himself. "All of us have stood over shots like that where you can choke. You didn't."

When Haas, also the winner here in 2010, rolled in his second short putt after lagging to eight inches, he had a 67 and a one-shot victory with a 72-hole total of 22-under 266. Former winner Charley Hoffman, Brendan Steele, Sung Joon Park, Steve Wheatcroft and Kuchar shared second.

With his escape act, Haas also won first prize of $1,000,026.

That was reminiscent of his even more famous escape act. That occurred in the 2011 Tour Championship. He was in a title playoff, his ball in the water next to the green, and he stepped into the water, somehow got the club through the water and onto the ball, and the ball onto the green. He went on to win both the tournament and the FedEx Cup.

His total payday for that was $11.44 million.

Asked afterward about his Houdini acts, he said, "I put myself in that situation, but when you do that, you've got to come up with something. It's happened before, this improvising, and it didn't work out as well. This was just fortunate."

A day of the usual perfect weather here began with one amazing story possibility and ended with the amazing Haas finish.

Had several of Erik Compton's putts not lipped out, or barely slid past the hole, this Humana Challenge might have been vying for space on the front pages of newspapers, not the sports pages.

Compton is on his third heart — his original and two transplants. He started the day tied for the lead with Haas, Justin Thomas and Michael Putnam. And when he ran in a 45-foot birdie putt on the first hole to take the lead, the story seemed a real possibility.

The Golf Channel quickly ran a recent interview with Compton, and the announcers could hardly contain themselves from rooting for him to win.

Reporters who are trained not to root for teams or results, but for good stories, had one within their grasp. But Compton drove the ball poorly and missed two makable birdie putts in the first five holes to end that story.

He shot two-under 70, finished tied for 10th and summed up his round: "I thought I was pretty pathetic."

In the end, all eyes had turned to Houdini Haas, who was busy unlocking handcuffs with his teeth.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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