CONOVER - An hour after it was over and Gary Hallberg, the one-time Wake Forest wunderkind had beaten Fred Couples by a stroke for his first Champions Tour victory on Sunday afternoon at Rock Barn Golf & Spa, it still didn't seem completely real to him.
Hallberg, who wasn't sure he'd have a job on the senior tour next year, turned a Saturday afternoon putting tip from Nick Price and a sermon in confidence from his coach Mike McGetrick into a final-round 61 to win the Ensure Classic while all eyes were on Couples and Bernhard Langer.
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It equaled the lowest final round by a winner ever on the Champions Tour and revived Hallberg's career, which never quite reached the glory level of his college days.
"You never think you're going to win, it's so far out there," said Hallberg, who finished at 18-under par 198 after rounds of 67-70-61.
"Look at the players - Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer. You think, golly, even if I play my best, I don't know if I can beat those guys. This is a lesson in confidence. I've not been the most confident player in my career."
A quick history lesson is in order:
Hallberg was the first college golfer to be a four-time first-team All-American, a designation later matched by Phil Mickelson, David Duval and Bryce Molder. He won the 1979 NCAA individual championship and pieced together three wins on the PGA Tour, the last coming exactly 18 years ago today at the Buick Southern Open.
He won a Nationwide Tour event eight years ago but with this season winding down, Hallberg was outside the top 50 and staring at a return to Monday qualifying to keep his job next year.
With a daughter in college and another in high school, Hallberg was playing golf to make ends meet. He doesn't have a car, renting one when he's home in Castle Rock, Colo. That, along with many other things, may change after Hallberg's $262,000 payday Sunday.
The day began with Couples owning a one-stroke lead over Langer in what set up as a battle between the tour's two dominant players this season. They both shot 67 on Sunday but it wasn't enough.
Hallberg used what Price told him Saturday afternoon - stay still over putts - and once the birdies started coming, they never quit. He played the last five holes of the front nine 5-under par then birdied five of his last seven holes to post 18-under par, forcing Couples to play catch-up.
Couples, playing on his 51st birthday, almost did it. Despite three bogeys in the first 12 holes, Couples closed within a stroke of Hallberg with birdies at 14, 15 and 16.
Needing a birdie at the 526-yard, uphill finishing par-5, Couples' second shot from the left round flew farther than he expected, leaving him with a 70-foot chip shot from the back fringe for his third shot.
He ran the chip eight feet past the hole and, after watching playing partner Morris Hatalsky make a putt on much the same line, Couples' tying putt missed on the right side when he hit it too firmly.
"I'm highly disappointed," said Couples, who commuted to Rock Barn daily from his Charlotte home. "I played well this week but not anything where I'll look back and say I got a bad break. I made a bunch of birdies (23 and one eagle) but I made way too many bogeys (six with one double)."
For Hallberg, it means he can plan to keep playing golf in 2011 instead of pondering a possible career change.
"I had a good college career and my pro career was okay," Hallberg said. "I felt like the Champions Tour was like a mulligan and I could do what I wanted to do with my career.
"It's a dream come true."
NOTES: It's likely the Ensure Classic will move to early June on the 2011 Champions Tour schedule, tournament director Jim Correll said Sunday.
Tour officials are trying to condense the latter part of the schedule, Correll said, and have asked Rock Barn officials if they will take June 6-12 next year. A May date was proposed but Correll said it was too early in the year for the course to be in satisfactory condition but June would be fine.
"The schedule is etched in Jell-O right now," Correll said.
Correll said he expects Ensure to return as sponsor next year. The tournament had a record Friday attendance and again on Sunday. "Having Couples and Langer in your last group is like having Tiger and Phil in the final group on the PGA Tour," Correll said.