Hamilton's win a Cinderella story

This is the time of year for upsets and Cinderella stories, for shockers and stunners, for madness and mayhem.

Todd Hamilton is not a college basketball player. Far from it. But he did his best Sunday to follow the formula.

There might not be a bigger surprise in golf this year. And we know it's only March.

Golf fans typically root for their favorites. The upstarts have a harder time against the proven stars. That's why Hamilton seemingly had no chance coming down the stretch Sunday in the final round of the Honda Classic against Davis Love III.

Birdies on the final two holes, however, had Hamilton rallying past Love for his first PGA Tour victory -- and it came in his rookie season.

At age 38.

Even Love had to admit it was special.

"It's a great, great story,'' said Love, who was relegated to his 26th career runner-up finish on the PGA Tour.

Love and Hamilton are just a year apart in age. They were both college All-Americans -- Love at North Carolina, Hamilton at Oklahoma.

But since, they are North Carolina and Lehigh, if you want to use the college basketball analogy.

Love has 18 career PGA Tour victories, including a major championship, and has been one of the star attractions for nearly 20 years.

Hamilton, meanwhile, never qualified for the PGA Tour until this year. In fact Hamilton, a 17-year pro, has spent most of his career in Japan, where he won 11 times in 12 years.

Although he made a nice living, playing golf in Japan -- or Calcutta, Kuala Lumpar, Singapore and Pakistan, a few of the other outposts -- is not exactly what Hamilton had in mind.

"If you're not doing well, it's very difficult,'' he said. "You starting missing a few cuts in a row and it's very boring. You can't just get in your car and go drive down and see a movie or go to the mall or go down to the grocery story to get some food. So it forces you to play well. There is no must-see TV in Japan, trust me.''

Hamilton, who lives in McKinney, Texas, first started playing in Asia in 1992. He figured it was a good place to work on his game and prepare himself for the PGA Tour.

It wasn't the PGA Tour, but Hamilton had carved out a nice living for himself. Five times after leaving Oklahoma, he had tried to earn his PGA Tour card and failed. So he played where he had success, and that meant 13-hour flights to Japan, four to six weeks of tournaments, then a trip back home to regroup, before doing it again.

Now with a wife and three kids, that lifestyle was getting to be more difficult. After the 2001 and 2002 seasons, Hamilton failed to earn his PGA Tour card. He won the Asian Tour Order of Merit that year, which gave him an exemption on the Japan Tour. Last year, he won four times in Japan and finished third on that tour's money list. He was also 29th at the PGA Championship.

His four victories and overall success in Japan exempted him into the finals of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament late last year. "I figured I might not ever get that chance,'' he said.

So Hamilton tried, and succeeded. He tied for 16th at the qualifying tournament, where the top 30 earned Tour status.

He had his moments, tying for 25th at Pebble Beach and even getting onto the leaderboard at Doral, where we finished tied for 15th and won $87,500.

Then, he found himself in the lead after three rounds at Honda. Nobody expected him to hold on, even with a four-shot advantage.

And sure enough, Hamilton appeared to be suffering with the pressure. He didn't make a birdie through 16 holes, was 4-over par for his round, and had fallen a stroke behind Love, who playing in front and shot 69.

So what does Hamilton do? He birdies the par-5 17th, his first of the day, to tie. Then he knocks it stiff at the last for another birdie, a victory and a $900,000 payday -- which is nearly as much as he made for all of last year, winning four times in Japan and playing two major championships and a World Golf event.

It was all a bit much to comprehend on Sunday.

"I think dreaming of playing on the PGA Tour since I was a kid and just finally getting out here ... it relieved a lot of pressure. I've been fortunate to play golf for a living. But there was always something that I didn't have, and that was my PGA Tour card. If I did nothing else, just getting the card ... I did what I wanted to do since I was a kid.

"There's probably a lot of other golfers who deserve it more talent-wise, but no one will appreciate it more.''

The dreams are just beginning. Hamilton will get a spot in the Players Championship and could very well be headed to the Masters. He jumped to 38th in the world on Monday, and the top 50 in two weeks get an invitation to Augusta.

Cinderella story, indeed.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.