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PERSEVERANCE PROPELS HARRIS TO PORTER CUP

John Harris says he never looked back on his past defeats at the Porter Cup.

Now he has a finish at Niagara Falls Country Club he always will want to look back upon.

The 45-year-old Harris, runner-up in the event in both 1992 and '93, finally got both hands on the Porter Cup trophy Saturday. He did it by shooting a superb 2-under-par 68 to win by two strokes over Georgia Tech star Matt Kuchar.

Harris' 13-under-par total of 267 tied the tournament record set in 1989 by current PGA Tour player Robert Gamez.

"I'm very proud of this accomplishment," said Harris, an insurance man from Edina, Minn. "I guess persistence and patience does pay off."

A crowd of about 2,000 was solidly behind Harris, and for good reason.

He had a brilliant 9-under performance in '92 but lost by a shot to David Duval. Then in '93 he missed a 5-foot putt on the 72nd hole to win and a two-footer coming back for the tie, a putt that has gone down in infamy at the Lewiston club.

"I felt bad. I was embarrassed. It hurt," Harris said of the defeat. "But I don't look back. I learned from it. It made me tougher. It made me stronger."

Indeed, Harris showed the mettle of a champion in the month after the miss by helping the U.S. side to victory in the Walker Cup and winning the U.S. Amateur Championship.

"I got a lot of breaks the next couple weeks that more than made up for it (the miss)," he says.

Harris needed to bring out that same championship mettle on Saturday. He was pushed all the way to the 18th hole in a tense, three-way battle with Virginia senior Lewis Chitengwa and Kuchar.

Harris entered the round two shots ahead of Chitengwa and three ahead of Kuchar, but the three made the turn tied at 10-under-par after Harris bogeyed the ninth hole.

Kuchar, a third-team All-America and author of a course-record-tying 62 on the first round, looked like he was gearing up for another birdie binge.

And the crowd began wondering if this would become yet another agonizing chapter for Harris at the Porter.

But Harris responded.

"I was a little too cautious on the ninth hole," Harris said. "I knew I had to play a little more aggressive. The seventh to 13th hole here is a stretch where you get an opportunity to make some birdies, and I wanted to get it going on the 10th."

That's when the action heated up. Harris hit a wedge from 120-yards to 10 feet and birdied the par-4 10th. Chitengwa made a 12-footer for birdie. Kuchar, playing a group ahead, birdied the par-5 11th. It remained a three-way tie.

Harris made a tap-in birdie on 11, and Chitengwa sank an 18-foot downhill chip for birdie from deep green-side rough. They were 12-under.

On the 153-yard 12th, Harris took the lead for good with an 8-iron to 15 feet and a birdie putt to go to 13-under.

Kuchar got to 12-under with a 20-foot birdie putt on the 13th, but after Chitengwa bogeyed the 13th and Harris sank a 5-footer for birdie on the 14th, the lead was two strokes on Kuchar and three on Chitengwa. That was enough cushion for Harris. By the time he stepped to the 18th tee, he needed just a bogey 4 to win.

He hit a solid 190-yard 6-iron aimed at the center of the green. It took a bad kick and rolled to the back fringe 40 feet away, but he made a beautiful chip to 2 feet and made par.

"I'm real proud of that tee shot I hit into 18," Harris said.

"John Harris didn't really make any mistakes," said Chitengwa, who wound up with a 71 to finish five behind in third. "He hit fairway after fairway. He kept the ball in play."

Harris hit 11 of 13 fairways with his drives and 12 of 18 greens with his approach shots.

"Stability is his strength," said veteran amateur Vinny Giles. "John never gets out of control. He's not a great putter. But he's a wonderful ball-striker. He's marvelous from tee to green. . . . He kicked all these kids' little fannies."

Harris doesn't hit it quite as long as the longest collegians. Chitengwa drove it 319 yards on the eighth hole and 303 on the third. But Harris is a great athlete, a former first-team All-America in both golf and ice hockey at the University of Minnesota. He spent five unsuccessful years on the pro golf tours in the '70s before turning to insurance for a living.

Harris has great leg drive in his shots, which is not easy to achieve unless you're a fine athlete. On the 463-yard fifth hole, Chitengwa drove it 285. Harris drove it 297.

"I can still hit it once in awhile," Harris smiled.

Harris can hit it whenever he wants at the Porter Cup from now on. Past champions get automatic invitations to return.