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Pepper Drives In Oldsmobile

Dottie Pepper said she was just trying to get it close. She did better than that.

Pepper, who had struggled throughout the final round, rattled in a 35-foot birdie putt from just off the green on the 72nd hole Sunday to nail down a 2-stroke victory over Kelli Kuehne in the Oldsmobile Classic.

"I was never completely comfortable," Pepper said after clinching the 16th victory over her career and second this season. "My belly hurts."

Pepper, who earned her second major with a triumph at the Nabisco Dinah Shore in March, shot a 2-under 70 for an 18-under 270 total at Walnut Hills Country Club.

Kuehne, a 22-year-old Texan seeking her second win of the year, started the day in a five-way tie for second, five shots back, but finished second alone after shooting a 67.

Pepper, as she had done so many times during the final two rounds, drove into the right rough on the final hole. She hit her 7-iron approach shot from thick rough onto the green, but the ball rolled just off the putting surface and into the first cut.

"I had such a good spot to aim at," Pepper said. "I saw this lighter shade of green. All I had to do was hit that."

Because her ball was off the green, she was allowed to leave the pin in the cup, which proved to be important. Pepper's putt came out a little hot, but the ball hit the pin dead center and disappeared into the hole as Pepper jumped for joy and the crowd cheered.

"I'm glad I left that pin in," Pepper said. "It was cruising pretty good. It got four feet away from the hole and I thought, `There's nowhere that ball is going but in."'

Even Kuehne smiled, despite the realization that she wasn't going to force a playoff.

"It was a hell of a putt," Kuehne said. "There's no other way to say it. About five feet from the hole, I knew it was in. I know I would have loved to have been in her shoes."

Kuehne let it be known the game was on right from the start with a trademark booming drive, and the veteran Pepper helped open the door with a mistake off the first tee, driving into a clump of trees. That set up a bogey for Pepper and when Kuehne drained a 6-foot putt for birdie, it was a 2-stroke swing.

Pepper settled down with birdies on Nos. 3 and 4, but Kuehne responded with birdies on Nos. 4, 5 and 6.

"It started to feel like match play out there," Pepper said. "We separated ourselves from the field. And Kellie is a great match-play player. She didn't win two U.S. Amateurs by accident."

Pepper birdied No. 7 from 5 feet for a 3-stroke lead at 18 under. Both birdied the eighth and bogeyed the ninth, so Pepper turned at 18 under, three ahead of Kuehne.

But, just as she did in the third round, Pepper started the final nine with a boey, failing to get out of greenside rough on her third shot. That cut her lead to two strokes, her closest call in two days, and Kuehne slashed it to one shot with a 20-foot birdie putt at No. 13.

Pepper missed an opportunity when her 10-footer for birdie burned the rim but failed to drop on the 14th.

They swapped pars on the next two holes, then Kuehne drove under a tree and into the rough on the right side of the 17th fairway. But she hit a wonderful punch shot that released and rolled within 12 feet.

After watching Pepper miss from 15 feet, Kuehne knew the door was open. But her downhill putt slid by on the low side and a look on Kuehne's face said she knew she might have missed her last best chance.

"I had a blast," Kuehne said. "I shot 5 under and I couldn't have done a whole lot better, all things considered. This is what it's all about."

"I wasn't expected to win. All the pressure was on Dottie."

Rosie Jones and Karrie Webb, the LPGA's leading money-winner, tied for third at 13-under 275. Each shot a 69 in strong cross winds over the final round.

Divots: Tournament officials are eager to push prize money over the $1 million mark, but Oldsmobile appears unwilling to budget more than $750,000. As a result, other companies will be sought as co-sponsors in coming years. Mel Kent, president of the Lansing Area Regional Chamber of Commerce, which runs the tournament, said regional insurance companies and grocery chains have expressed an interest. ... Kuehne, who is engaged to be married to Minnesota Vikings rookie Jay Humphrey, is finding it isn't so easy buying furniture for a football player. "Jay doesn't fit on many stools," Kuehne said. "So, we sit on the couch and eat on that table."

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