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UGA grad Imada wins first PGA event at AT&T Classic

DULUTH - Ryuji Imada claimed his first PGA Tour victory by taking advantage of someone else's misfortune.

Don't expect him to feel bad about it.

Just one year ago, Imada squandered a chance to pick up his first win when he knocked the ball in the water during a playoff at the AT&T Classic.

On Sunday, at the very same tournament, at the very same hole, Imada was in another playoff when Kenny Perry came up wet on the 73rd hole.

'I never really believed in destiny,' Imada said. 'But I'm starting to believe it.'

The 31-year-old Japanese native, who played his college golf right down the road at the University of Georgia, gladly settled for a routine par that gave him his breakthrough win at the gusty TPC at Sugarloaf. He surged to third in the FedEx Cup standings, trailing only Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, and headed off to the next tournament with a burden lifted from his shoulders.

'I'm just going to cherish this one,' Imada said. 'Nobody can take this one away from me.'

He sure earned it, right from the very first round. Playing in a driving rain without his wet-weather gear - he left it in a locker at the Players Championship - Imada still managed to shoot 71. He was in the 60s the rest of the way, closing with a 5-under 67 that left him tied with Perry at 15-under 273.

On the first hole of the playoff, Perry's ball wound up in the water even though his second shot easily cleared the pond in front of the 18th green. The ball struck a pine tree behind and right of the green about 10 feet up the trunk, which sent it skidding back across the putting surface. It didn't stop rolling until it was in the water, the gallery groaning in disbelief.

'I couldn't really tell what happened,' said Imada, who was standing alongside his ball after driving in the rough. 'I asked a couple of people and one of them said it was close and another said it was in the water.

That's why it took me so long to make the decision to lay up.'

Imada played it safe with an iron on the par-5 hole and wound up two-putting for the winning par.

After taking a drop, Perry nearly spun back his wedge into the cup, then missed a 14-footer that would have forced another extra hole. The 31-year-old Imada stepped up and calmly knocked his ball straight in from 4 feet for the victory.

'I left myself a tester,' he said. 'I'm glad it went in.

Imada has been a runner-up three times on the PGA Tour, including twice already this season. A year ago, he got into a playoff with Zach Johnson at the suburban Atlanta tournament, only to lose when he knocked his second shot into the same pond that claimed Perry's ball.

Now, he's finally got a win on his resume, which guarantees a return trip to Georgia in 2009.

'I know I get invited to the Masters now,' Imada said, breaking into a big smile. 'I always dreamed of playing there since I was a kid. I can't wait to see what it's like.'

He needed a birdie on the 72nd hole just to get in the playoff. Trailing Perry by a stroke, Imada was right of the green with a 3-wood, some 70 feet away, but chipped up to 4 feet and made the putt.

Perry, a nine-time tour winner playing in the final group, still had a chance for the outright win with a birdie of his own. He chose to lay up with his second shot, but his wedge from 118 yards wasn't nearly as close as he wanted. He misread a 25-foot putt and settled for a 69, his fourth straight round in the 60s.

It wasn't enough.

'I hit a beautiful 5-wood,' Perry said of his errant playoff shot. 'I must have been pumped up because it hit the tree trunk over there and shot across the green into the water. What are you going to do?'

Camilo Villegas shot a 66 but missed an eagle putt at the 72nd hole that would have gotten him in the playoff. He wound up one shot back. Jonathan Byrd was two strokes behind in fourth, but no one outside of Perry was kicking himself as much as Parker McLachlin. He appeared to be pulling away for his first PGA Tour win when he eagled out of a bunker at No. 13, giving him a three-stroke lead.

But the pressure of being in contention for the first time clearly got to McLachlin down the stretch. The 29-year-old bogeyed three of the last five holes to finish with a 67 and a 276 total, three shots out of the playoff.

'You've got your nerves going,' McLachlin conceded. 'You're trying to steady yourself, but the wind is blowing so hard, it's hard to steady yourself.'

Charles Howell III went into the final round with a one-stroke lead, but he couldn't close it out for his third tour win. The Augusta native struggled to a 74 and finished four shots back.

Divots: Apparently perturbed, Perry declined to come to the interview room after losing the playoff. ... The final round began early after the forecast called for the chance of afternoon thunderstorms. The players went off from both the first and 10th tees, with the final groups getting on the course at 10:15 a.m. It never did rain. ... Johnson, who has two wins at Sugarloaf, closed with a 73 for a 5-under 283. ... Imada is the first Japanese-born winner on the tour since Shigeki Maruyama in 2003.