LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Stephen Ames wanted to escape the chill of Calgary for the final PGA Tour event, a decision that paid off Sunday when he closed with a 4-under 68 for a one-shot victory in the Children's Miracle Network Classic.
Ames emerged from a typically crowded leaderboard at Disney with three straight birdies on the back nine of the Magnolia Course, then saved par from 65 feet out of the bunker to avoid a playoff with Tim Clark.
It was the first victory in a year that Ames already had deemed a success because of overhauling his swing to cope with nagging back issues. He took pride in being among the leaders in the final round of the U.S. Open, and playing in the final group with Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship.
Nothing beats winning, though, especially against a solid group of players contending at Disney.
"I was planning on going to Maui for a Christmas vacation, and now I have another reason to go," Ames said, referring to Kapalua for the winners-only Mercedes-Benz Championship that starts the 2008 season.
Clark, who has the most career earnings of anyone without a PGA Tour victory, birdied six of his final 10 holes for a 66 and played the brutal three closing holes in 1 under to see if it would be good enough. Scott Verplank, who shared the 54-hole lead with Ames, was tied for the lead with four holes to play until he could no longer keep up.
Ames made it tough on himself by putting his approach into a bunker, some 65 feet from the hole on the 18th. But he blasted out beautifully to 3 feet and calmly rapped in the putt for his third career victory.
He finished at 17-under 271, the highest winning score at Disney since Woods won with the same score in 1999.
The consolation prize went to Kevin Stadler, who tied for 15th to move into the top 125 and keep his card for next year. Stadler finished at No. 124, while Matthias Gronberg locked up the final spot with a tie for 37th.
Stadler began the Fall Series at No. 108 on the money list, but made only two cuts over the last six weeks and had dropped to No. 127. He played the final round knowing he was somewhere around the magic number.
"It's not life or death, but it's a hell of a big deal," Stadler said.
Justin Leonard was among seven players tied for the lead at one point until a late bogey dropped him into a tie for sixth, leaving him short of the top 30 on the money list to earn a spot in the Masters.
Robert Gamez had a 67-68 weekend and tied for third to earn $239,200, pushing him up to No. 132 on the money list. Gamez and Jeff Gove at least moved inside the top 150, meaning they can skip the second stage of Q-school and at least have conditional status next year. Tripp Isenhour had a chance to join them, but he failed to make birdie in his round of 75.
None of that concerned Ames, 43, who only wanted to finish out his season on a strong note. Born in Trinidad & Tobago but now a Canadian citizen, the golf courses closed in Calgary about a month ago and Ames had no golf on his agenda until defending his title in Skins Game over Thanksgiving weekend.
He came to Disney without his family and stayed with his swing coach, Sean Foley.
"I came down here to work on my golf swing," he said. "Here I am winning an event, which is awesome."
But it was a grind, nothing like his victory last year at The Players Championship, when Ames made double bogey in the final round and still blew away a world-class field by six shots.
It was messy atop the leaderboard, nothing new at this tournament. The seven players tied for the lead at some point included Bryce Molder, who made eagle at No. 14 to get to 15 under, only to give it back two holes later when his drive found the water.
Verplank went ahead a 15-foot birdie on the seventh hole and stayed atop the leaderboard most of the day.
Ames holed a 12-foot birdie on the 13th hole to tie for the lead, he and Verplank both birdied the par-5 14th, and the turning point came at the 204-yard 15th, where Ames hit a 4-iron that rolled past the pin and settled 8 feet away.
"That was a clutch shot," Ames said.
He also knew what followed - three of the longest, toughest holes on the Magnolia course, knowing that Clark already had posted his score. But he kept the ball in play off the tee, and didn't have to work too hard to par until his bunker shot at the end.
Tag Ridings, who needed a victory to secure his card for next year because he was No. 210 on the money list, closed with a 70 and tied for third along with Verplank (71) and Gamez.
Clark had no reason to play this week, because he already is exempt for the Masters. Even after running off four straight birdies starting at No. 9 with a 30-foot putt, winning never occurred to him until his 10-foot birdie on the 14th put him in a tie for the lead.
But he had few complaints.
"I really didn't leave anything out there," he said.