(Reuters) – Five years after defying the odds and surviving a rare and potentially fatal skin disease, Gene Sauers clinched the biggest victory of his golfing life, a one-shot win at the U.S. Senior Open in Ohio on Monday.
Sauers suffered the heartbreak of losing in a playoff to Colin Montgomerie in the same event in 2014, but the diminutive American went one better this time when he sank a short par putt on the last hole to edge Miguel Angel Jimenez and Billy Mayfair.
Sauers carded a closing 69 to finish on three-under-par 277 at Scioto Country Club in Columbus.
Now 53, the four-time PGA Tour winner was hospitalized in 2011 after contracting a skin condition known as Stevens-Johnson syndrome.
Blood vessels in his arms and legs clotted and his skin started to burn from the inside out, leaving him in excruciating pain. He was given only a 25 percent chance of surviving but made it through with a series of successful skin grafts.
“I didn’t think I’d ever be here. I told my wife when I was in the hospital I didn’t think I was ever coming out,” an emotional Sauers said at the victory presentation.
“I didn’t touch a club for seven years and I didn’t know if I’d ever be playing again. It’s pretty amazing to win a major. I’m humbled to be here and thank the Lord for saving my life.”
Sauers and Jimenez traded the lead during the final round, with the Spaniard surrendering his advantage with an early double-bogey before seizing it back with a 20-foot birdie at the 15th hole.
However, Jimenez bogeyed the par-three 17th after a poor tee shot, leaving the pair tied heading to the par-four 18th, where Jimenez missed a 10-foot par putt, opening the door for Sauers.
Trying to avoid thoughts of his playoff loss to Montgomerie in Oklahoma, Sauers sank the putt to banish any demons lurking in his head.
Finishing in equal second place alongside American Mayfair was another bitter pill for Jimenez, who led into the final round at the Senior British Open three weeks ago but double-bogeyed the final hole to finish in a tie for third.
“I been hitting very good shots, and not enough putts,” said the 52-year-old, a 21-time winner on the European Tour, who will no doubt console himself with a trademark cigar and glass of red wine.
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by John O’Brien)