Emiliano Grillo. Jonathan Bachman
It had been eight years since his last PGA Tour victory, and in professional golf eight years is almost forever. So when Emiliano Grillo made a birdie putt at Colonial’s par-3 16th Sunday afternoon, he chased after his ball with an undercut that encapsulated the pain and disappointment and doubt experienced between then and now, on the precipice of capturing his second career title.
Ninety minutes later, Grillo was back at the 16th, that presumed victory very much in jeopardy and a moment that underlined why it is so darned hard to make a living in a game that traffics in heartbreak.
But for the second try in as many attempts on Sunday, Grillo walked off the par-3 16th with a 2. This time there was no punch to the heavens, instead a muted fist pump and a major exhale after surviving a dramatic stumble, and for that the 30-year-old from Argentina is the 2023 Charles Schwab Challenge champ.
“Obviously it’s great. It made everything worth it,” Grillo said after a final-round two-under 68. “The playing, all the hours practising, the effort from my family. It makes you think when you started playing all the emotions come through your head.”
Starting his day four back of the lead, Grillo opened with four birdies in his first seven holes to get in the mix, adding a birdie at the 12th to jump alone atop the leaderboard. When he walked off the 16th the first time, he held a two-shot advantage at 10-under, one that didn’t seem in jeopardy with his closest competitors in Adam Schenk and Harry Hall having the toughest time making red figures.
But there is an aqueduct to the right of the 18th hole. It is mostly dry, its brook maybe an inch deep … and yet deep enough to almost sink Grillo. Still holding a two-shot advantage, Grillo sliced his drive at the 72nd into the aqueduct, and the channel’s stream caught Grillo’s ball — and the hopes and dreams that rode with it — and didn’t let go.
Bizarre scenes on 18.
Leader Emiliano Grillo’s tee shot finds a water stream and takes five minutes to eventually come to a stop.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 28, 2023
For seven minutes, Grillo waited for the stream to decant his ball but the stream would not abide. For seven minutes, Grillo studied his options, searching for a question that would keep the final outcome the same. For seven minutes, we were reminded why tournaments of consequence are awarded not after 70 or 71 or 54 holes, but a minimum of 72. Grillo ultimately took a drop off cement, his third shot finishing short of the green. The chip never looked good and neither did his save for bogey. There had been just four double-bogeys on the week at the 18th until that moment. There was now a fifth, and a birdie by Schenk at the 16th created a tie at the top.
“I knew, as soon as I saw the ball going right, I was like this is going to be a very long hole,” Grillo said. “I’ve been through that pain of watching the ball just roll 120 yards back.”
If there was any solace for Grillo he was not alone in his 18th hole stumble. Hall was the 54-hole co-leader with Schenk at 10-under and birdied his first two holes on Sunday to get it to 12-under. But the 25-year-old tour rookie from England failed to birdie another hole in the final round and played his last 14 holes in five-over. That included a bogey at the 18th after snap-hooking his drive into the water, when a par would have been good enough for a spot in a playoff. Only two players out of the 72 that teed it up Sunday found the water on the 18th, and it just happened to be Grillo and Hall, players in the final two groups.
“I learned a lot, and you don’t have to play great golf to win on a hard golf course coming down the stretch,” Hall said after his 73. “You’ve just got to hit it in the middle of the green and not do anything stupid.
“I did a few things stupid today.”
Schenk had a shot at the win in regulation, but his birdie putt at the 18th slid just by the hole, setting up overtime with Grillo after he posted a closing two-over 72. On the first hole of sudden death, both men found the fairway at the 18th, with Grillo again blocking his tee shot to the right only to receive a fortuitous bounce off a hill and back into the short stuff. Grillo’s approach went right but for the second time received a generous hop, this time his ball finishing 30 feet from the pin. Schenk’s approach followed suit on a similar line, hitting and rolling back just inside Grillo’s ball. Both birdie putts missed, sending the playoff to the 16th.
Grillo went first on the par 3, his approach again going right for the third straight swing and again getting a lucky break, his ball ricocheting off a mound that guarded a greenside bunker and on to the green that started to funnel his ball to the pin .. and kept funneling … and funnelled some more, until the ball came to rest four feet from the pin.
“Yeah, the shot wasn’t that great,” Grillo admitted. “Obviously it was a bit right of where I wanted. I took the entire slope and got close.”
Schenk could not match, his tee shot flying the green something fierce. Though he made a marvellous pitch to two feet, Grillo decided he had enough theatrics for one afternoon, converting the remaining 4 feet, 8 inches to claim what looked to be his just an hour before.
It is Grillo’s second victory, his aforementioned first coming at the 2015 Frys.com Open in Napa. That was the campaign in which Grillo won PGA Tour Rookie of the Year honours and finished 11th in the FedEx Cup, and a campaign that catapulted him to the 2017 Presidents Cup team. Since that breakthrough Grillo has had a solid but far from spectacular career, never losing his tour card yet finishing better than 59th on the FedEx Cup standings just once. This week at Colonial showed he has the game and form to be one of the game’s better international players, to be the performer that was promised so many years ago.
“It’s been tough, but it’s worth every second,” Grillo said. “People ask me if I would have done something different, obviously looking back, I wouldn’t. This is just worth it.”
What a moment ❤️
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 28, 2023
That may ultimately come to fruition, and the security that Grillo earned will give him the chances to take those next steps. However, Sunday may not be remembered for Grillo’s almost collapse but how he responded to it, and we’re not referring to his play. Cameras caught Grillo warming up on Colonial’s first hole as he awaited his fate. What the cameras showed was not a player coming to grips with the unthinkable or preparing for a playoff battle, but a player who invited a couple of kids to join him on the range. Grillo was seen giving his club to one child and watched the little guy do his best to whack a ball as hard as he could, smiling and offering encouragement. After a few shots the kid handed the club back to Grillo, as Grillo exchanged a couple of high fives and bumps.
Yes, this is a game that traffics in heartbreak. Grillo reminded us it can be a heckuva lot of fun, too, and he didn’t need a win to prove that to us or himself.