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Ex-Missouri golfer heads into Omaha on high note

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Peter Malnati comes to the Cox Classic virtually assured of a spot on next season’s PGA Tour after his win Sunday in Knoxville, Tenn., on the Tour.

Malnati soared from 80th to 16th on the money list with his one-stroke victory in the News Sentinel Open. The season’s top 25 money winners after the Cox Classic will be the first to secure their PGA Tour eligibility for the 2013-14 season.

“I’ve worked really hard, and I love doing this,” Malnati said in his press room interview following his 6-under 65 in a rain-delayed final round. “The only thing that stresses me out is wondering am I going to have to play mini tours next year? And the answer to that is no.”

Until this year, mini tours were the only option for the former Missouri Tiger. Malnati won back-to-back Wells Fargo Nebraska Opens in Columbus in 2010 and 2011 after making his pro debut in the event in 2009.

He was unsuccessful last year in the Monday qualifying for the Cox Classic.

This year, he had no status on the Tour when the season began and didn’t get into a tournament until mid-June, when he won a playoff in a Monday qualifier, at the Air Capital Classic in Wichita, Kan.

Malnati tied for 15th there, then tied for 24th and for ninth the next two weeks. After missing the cut in his only July event, he tied for 10th and for 14th the previous two weekends to gain “special temporary status” on the tour for the remainder of the season for passing a money-winnings threshold.

In Knoxville, which is an hour from his hometown of Dandridge, Tenn., Malnati fashioned rounds of 70-67-66-65 to finish at 16 under. He commuted every day to Fox Den Country Club.

A win appeared unreachable after he bogeyed the first two holes Sunday. But he said he was feeling good going to the third tee.

He didn’t birdie that hole, but he did the fourth hole and made seven more in the final 14 holes. He birdied five of the last seven, including the 18th on a 3-foot putt.

“I didn’t feel like I was going to win,” Malnati said after that first birdie of the day. “That was a thought that was not in my head.”

After posting his score, Malnati watched Blayne Barber and Matt Bettencourt, playing in the final threesome, fail to birdie the final hole to force a playoff. Miguel Carballo and James White also were in the tie for second.

Barber, a Monday qualifier, moved from 151st to 84th on the money list with his $36,300 check. Bettencourt is a former winner on the PGA Tour.

Malnati said it was thrilling to get his biggest win in his home state.

“To see the crowds get bigger and bigger and louder and louder as the week went on,’’ he said, “I can’t tell you how cool it is to win this golf tournament.”

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