PALM BEACH GARDENS, FLORIDA (AP) – Sepp Straka is going back to Georgia in a few weeks. He’s headed to his first Masters, after pulling off a huge comeback to win the Honda Classic.
Straka, down by five shots entering the final round, tapped in for birdie in the rain on the final hole and ended up beating Shane Lowry by one shot to become the first Austrian winner in PGA Tour history. He shot a 4-under 66 on Sunday to finish at 10 under and earn USD1.44 million.
A first-round 71 was followed by a 64 on Friday, 69 on Sunday and then 66 yesterday. He was 4 under in his final 10 holes, 3 under over the final five, finishing with a flourish while most others sputtered.
Lowry shot his third consecutive round of 67, finishing the week 9 under. First-round leader Kurt Kitayama (68) was alone in third at 8 under, and Daniel Berger – who led by six shots with 19 holes left in the tournament – simply fell apart on Sunday, his round of 74 leaving him 7 under for the week and three shots behind Straka.
“Just a poor round,” Berger said. “It can happen at any time. I’m not going to dwell on it too much. Just didn’t hit quality shots at the right time. Probably would’ve had a chance to win if I made a few more putts. I don’t think I made a single putt today.”
Lowry needed to make a 45-footer for birdie on the final hole to force a playoff. It missed, and with that, the Honda had a new champion – one who came into the week ranked No 176 in the world, has never been higher than No 129 on that list, and whose claim to fame as a pro probably was being the first-round leader at the Tokyo Olympics last summer.
He’s a PGA Tour winner now. And Straka – who played his college golf at Georgia – will play the Masters in April. “It’s crazy. It’s a lifelong dream of mine just to be heading to Augusta in a month or so,” Straka said. “It’s still surreal.”
The undoing for Berger began on Sunday when he went to the 18th tee with a six-shot lead, then made bogey. Still, the five-shot lead through 54 holes matched the biggest in Honda history and for a hometown guy – his home is 15 minutes from PGA National – the ingredients were there for a memorable win.
Yesterday had different ideas. He was paired with Lowry for the final round, and it didn’t take long for everything to change.
Lowry made birdie on the first; the lead was down to four. Berger put a tee ball into the pine straw on the par-5 third, then had a ball buried in the sand of a greenside bunker and made double-bogey 7 to see the lead trimmed to two.
Lowry tapped in for birdie at the fourth. Lead down to one. Berger bogeyed the fifth. The lead was gone. And when Berger missed a 15-footer for par at the sixth, Lowry was suddenly up by one.
Straka was in the group five shots back to start yesterday, then missed a 2-foot par putt and made bogey on the opening hole. But slowly and steadily, he clawed back – a birdie on the par-4 ninth got him to 7 under, followed by another birdie on the 14th.
A 20-footer on the 16th pulled him into a tie. That’s when weather decided to show up, too. As if the finish needed more drama, it simply started pouring as the final groups were finishing. Kitayama and Straka got a fortunate break, getting to play their tee shots on 18 before the rain started.
The sudden downpour came in fast, and both camped out on the 18th fairway under their umbrellas before playing their second shots into the par-5 finishing hole.
Each hit to about 50 feet and set up eagle putts. Straka two-putted, then waited to see if Lowry – who rushed into a poor tee shot during the downpour on 18 – could get to 10 under.
He couldn’t. And Straka is on his way back to Georgia. “That bad weather came in just as we were hitting our tee shot on 18, which was as bad a break as I’ve got in a while,” Lowry said. “Yeah, it’s a tough one to take.”