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FOR ONCE, A NICE GUY FINISHES FIRST.

Byline: JILL PAINTER

GOLF

Nice guys finish last.

The phrase was coined for a guy like Champions Tour player Denis Watson.

On a tour loaded with good guys, Watson is at the top of the list.

When he's playing senior events, he wears a straw hat with a button that reads: "Volunteers make it happen."

The only advertisement he wears on his hat is "Logganslaw.com," the Web site for his wife's law firm.

When he sat down to talk with reporters after he won the AT&T Champions Classic in a three-hole playoff at Valencia Country Club, he apologized for keeping them so late on a Sunday. He meant it, too.

Watson, 52, finished first Sunday, but there was a time he finished last in seemingly everything.

His promising professional golf career started and nearly ended with a bang. He won three events -- the Buick Open, NEC World Series of Golf and Panasonic Las Vegas Invitational -- in a six-week stretch in 1984. He was a rising star.

He had a banner year and even bigger expectations, but in 1985 he hit the stump of a tree -- which he didn't realize was there -- on a shot in the Goodyear Classic in South Africa. Watson, who's from Zimbabwe, spent the better part of a decade dealing with surgeries and rehabilitation.

Watson blew out his wrist, elbow and neck with one swing. He was told he'd never play golf again. He had neck surgery in LosAngeles, but when he woke up he was in a full body brace. He wore a head halo instead of a back brace because the damage was worse than doctors expected. Just when he thought it couldn't get worse, his wife, Hilary, divorced him and later married fellow tour player Tom Watson -- no relation to Denis.

Denis Watson's struggles in life were much more imposing than his career mishaps, but the two weren't a good combination. He never won on the PGA Tour again.

He was playing, but he was just going through the motions. In 1995, he couldn't play because he had surgery on his right arm to repair ulnar nerve damage.

But a simple golf lesson changed his life. He was teaching lessons for David Leadbetter, his good friend and swing coach, and one was with Susan Loggans. She was an attorney who started her own law firm, and after a few lessons, their friendship blossomed into romance.

The real part of his rehabilitation was just beginning.

"When I met him, he was in a very negative phase," said Loggans, who usually travels with Watson unless she's trying a case. "It was just after his divorce. I think the additional kids in his life were very positive for him."

Loggans and Watson have fivechildren -- including two sets of twins -- in addition to three kids from his marriage to Hilary.

On Sunday, he hoisted the circular AT&T Trophy and tears later welled up in his eyes.

Asked if the past few years made up for all the pain he endured, Watson said: "You can't change the continuum of time. I've had a phenomenal life. I've had a lot of aggravation, and you don't know what God has in mind for you. Maybe you're supposed to learn some things.

"If I didn't have the path I've had, I wouldn't be with Susan. I wouldn't have five great kids. It's hard to unring the bell. You have to look back and see all the great things that have happened and the place where I'm at now is where I'm supposed to be. I'm really trying to enjoy it."

Loggans did plenty to help Watson find happiness again, but he's done a lot for her, too.

"He's made me a lot nicer," Loggans said. "I was a trial lawyer who was self-centered with no kids. I was just thinking about trying to win the next case. I admire Denis every day. He has a lot of great qualities."

But he's still a professional golfer, so anything less than perfection has him engaging in stinking thinking sometimes.

Two years ago, Loggans returned to school to get her master's in psychology. About that time, Watson's right shoulder froze, and he needed three months of rehab. Immediately afterward, his left shoulder gave out and he required surgery and five months of rehab.

"(I went back to school) because I have five kids, and I'm married to a professional golfer," she said. "I try to tell Denis he's the same player regardless if he's not playing well. He has too high expectations. I try to get him to adjust them to a reasonablelevel."

His mother-in-law does that, too.

Just before the final round at Valencia Country Club, Watson was seven strokes back and in a tie for 20th place. Cleta Glenn told him if he shot 68 he could move into the top 10. Watson figured with a 64 he could win. His 65 put him in a three-way playoff, and he won.

Finally, a nice guy finishing first again.

Without Lopez, Hope is no laughing matter

Apparently, people were having a good time at the Bob Hope Classic the past couple of years.

When tournament organizers tapped George Lopez to host the event and bring some pizzazz to it, they got it right. Lopez energized a tournament that desperately needed a facelift. No one could do the Bob Hope tournament like Bob Hope, but Lopez did it in a way that was fun.

He's a nice guy. He puts his arm around folks and makes them feel welcome. Whether he was standing on a green or walking from hole-to-hole, he'd stop for pictures and autographs.

He wore funny hats and outfits. He brought celebrities back to the tournament. He landed Samuel L. Jackson, Luke Wilson, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Ray Romano and others. Fallon always commanded a big gallery and did crazy stuff like climb up a rock at Silver Lake Golf Course in La Quinta.

Lopez's run as tournament host came to an end after two years, but his contract, according to a source, was only a two-year contract anyway. Something about moving in a different direction. You know the drill.

Apparently, jokes and fun are a bit much for the stuffy golf crowd in the desert.

Too much fun? Shame on you.

Arnold Palmer is reportedly being pursued to host next year's event, which would be great. Palmer is a great ambassador for the game and one of the nicest guys around, but that would only be for one year. What's going to happen after that?

Why, when people finally get something right, do they make it into something so wrong?

Lopez put his heart and soul into the tournament. It's not a small commitment. You don't just show up that week, smile for the cameras and play a little golf and you're done.

Lopez had a cell phone stocked with numbers of people in high places. It took alittle convincing for some people.

He joked that he needed a place to store Tiger Woods' yacht, so he could convince him to play in the event. Even Palmer wouldn't be able to do that.

The tournament found a celebrity host that worked hard and made people laugh. What was so wrong with that?

CAPTION(S):

photo, 2 boxes

Photo:

Denis Watson won the AT&T Champions Classic in a three-hole playoff Sunday against Brad Bryant and Loren Roberts at Valencia Country Club.

David Crane/Staff Photographer

Box:

(1) THIS WEEK'S SCHEDULE

(2) Etc.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 19, 2008
Words:1254
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