NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. Jason Kokrak played the 233rd time in his 10th season on the PGA Tour without ever having won, so he didn’t need a reminder in the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek on Sunday that things would come easy.
He watched Xander Schauffele stuff a wedge up to 5 feet for birdie and roll into a 45-foot birdie putt from the thick collar of the 13th green onto the next hole to tie the lead.
Kokrak never flinched. Kokrak held his nerve to the end delivering all the important shots, Kokrak equaled the week’s low score with an 8-under 64 to close a three-shot backlog at the start and win with two shots to himself finally be able to name one. PGA Tour Winner.
“Waiting so long for my first win, that’s pretty special,” said Kokrak. “Couldn’t be happier.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. The CJ Cup moved from South Korea to Shadow Creek this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kokrak is an ambassador for MGM Resorts, owner of the prestigious Tom Fazio design, and he has played the course some twenty times.
“It feels like home,” said Kokrak, “I’ve played this golf course enough that I should know now.”
Adding to the feeling was that I had outdone Schauffele, who made him work for it. Kokrak began pulling away with four straight birdies on the front nine, and birdie putts from 20 feet and 18 feet to start the back nine that extended his lead to two shots. Schauffele replied with three consecutive birdies, the last a 45-footer that gave the feeling that he would claim another PGA Tour victory by coming from behind. It all turned on the par-5 16th, when both missed the fairway to the left. Schauffele saw a wood chip behind his ball that he did not want to touch in case it caused the ball to move. He shifted it about 85 meters to rougher.
“I didn’t really feel a lot of ball when I hit,” said Schauffele. ‘I don’t want to call it a bad break. All I have to do is hit the fairway and it would have been a different story. ”
Swaying with all his strength, his third shot shot to the right into more rugged way below the green, making his only bogey in his round of 66. Kokrak was also in the left rough, chopping to the right and putting his third shot in the bunker. But he spun it to just within four feet and made a par for a one-shot lead. That turned out to be the decisive shot, as Schauffele was unable to catch up and finished with a 66.
“I couldn’t be happier for him,” said Schauffele. “He finally started rolling in some putts and it just goes to show how dangerous he can be out here.”
Kokrak, a 35-year-old from Ohio, almost held on to it when he drilled his drive into the fairway on the par-5 of the 18th, leaving only a short iron to 25 feet. He’s two-putted for his last birdie of a round he won’t soon forget.
“Every time you’ve been here for so long, you sure have doubts in your head,” Kokrak said. ‘As good as hitting my ball is, no matter how hard I’ve worked … that first win comes to me. I knew in my mind that I was going to get it done. ”
Russell Henley, who started the final round with a three-shot lead, never got anything early and fell behind when he bogeyed the par-5 seventh and Kokrak on his early series of birdies. Henley’s hopes ended in the attainable par-4 11th as he drove across the green in thick rough and, facing a descending chip, left it in the rough zone of the green and bogeyed on the second-easiest scoring hole at Shadow Creek. That got him four shots behind, and a late bout of birdies would never be enough. He finished with a 70 and finished in third place with Tyrrell Hatton, who took victory in the BMW PGA Championship in Wentworth last week. Hatton finished with a 65.
Kokrak played bogey-free on a track where trouble was never far away. Justin Thomas, within five shots of the lead, has two straight bogeys on the front nine and three more in a four-hole stretch on the back for a 74. At least Rory McIlroy was on his way to a good finish until he got a pair of had. bogeys and two double bogeys over the last five holes for a 74.
To make it even more difficult on Kokrak and Schauffele, Jason Day, the third in their group, retired with a neck injury on the second hole. That meant two of them in the middle of a course full of threesomes, and a lot of waiting. They were still playing at the highest level, with Kokrak delivering all key putts.
Kokrak earned a spot in the Masters next month by reaching the Tour Championship in August a year ago. Now he can plan two trips to Augusta National, where he will qualify for the 2021 tournament by winning.
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