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Sepp Straka stood in the 18th fairway at TPC Deere Run Sunday with an 8-iron in his hands, confidence coursing through his veins and a second PGA Tour victory in his sights. That he also had a chance to add his name to the list of tour players to break 60 was a mere secondary consideration.
“It popped in my mind, for sure, yeah, but I wasn’t going to change my game plan or strategy for the 59,” the 30-year-old native of Austria said. “The goal was still to keep the same game plan and try to finish and win a golf tournament. As fun as the 59 would be, I think winning the golf tournament is always more fun.”
Good thing he felt that way. Straka proceeded to rinse the shot, pulling his approach from 181 yards into the water left of the green. It cost him a double bogey on the par-4 home hole and marred what had been a sensational round, one of the finest this season. But sometimes a round qualifies as great by being good enough, and that’s what Straka submitted by carding a nine-under 62 and posting a two-stroke victory in the John Deere Classic.
For 17 holes, Straka absolutely strafed defenceless TPC Deere Run with nine birdies and an eagle, but after rallying from four strokes back to begin the final round to building a five-stroke lead, he left the door open with a mistake out of character with the quality of golf he had been putting on display on a temperate day in Silvis, Ill.
A birdie on the final hole—or on any of the three previous holes after getting to 11 under par—would have given Straka the 13th sub-60 score in tour history. He also would have become the third player, after David Duval and Stuart Appleby, to win with a final-round 59.
Instead, after the dyspeptic conclusion, he had to stew for more than an hour, hoping his 21-under 263 total would hold up. Third-round leader Brendan Todd climbed within a stroke, but he couldn’t catch Straka and Straka found himself $1.332 million richer and a step closer, perhaps, to making Luke Donald’s European Ryder Cup team.
“Hopefully, I can make a push for that [the Ryder Cup],” said Straka, who was born in Vienna but moved with his family to Georgia when he was 14 and attended the University of Georgia.
Straka, who rose to 27th in the world, is the second tour winner this season to double bogey the final hole, following Emiliano Grillo at the Charles Schwab Challenge. He is the first player since David Frost in 1992 to win the event with a round over par. Straka began the week with a two-over 73 and sat in 133rd place before rallying with 63 and 65 to climb into contention.
He credited short-game instructor Tim Yelverton with a putting tip that turned around his fortunes. Yelverton texted him Thursday after that first round and told Straka that the toe of his putter was sticking up. Straka adjusted his hands a little higher to flatten the clubhead.
Straka led the field in strokes gained/putting on Sunday and was fourth for the week at 6.731. He also was tops in birdies with 26.
“It was crazy because you don’t want to think about it too much because you don’t want to lose the feeling,” he said of being in a zone of sorts. “I was hitting the ball really well. I don’t think the ball-striking was as out of this world as the putting. The putting was just phenomenal.”
The final round began with 12 players within three shots of Todd’s lead. Straka wasn’t one of them. But by the sixth hole, when he tapped in a two-footer for birdie, he had the lead alone at 17 under, and he never trailed thereafter. He went out in seven-under 28, the third 28 posted on the front nine at TPC Deere Run. Then he added four birdies in a row starting with a seven-footer at the 11th to reach 11 under par.
His best chance to get to 12 under came at the par-5 17th hole, but he pulled a nine-foot birdie attempt. Then came Sepp’s misstep at 18, which for a while looked like it could cost him the tournament.
“It was not a good shot,” he said of his final approach. “Wind was off the right. I was just trying to go middle of the green and let it feed down to the left. Pulled it early. And then the wind drags it over to the water. It’s unfortunate. It was the first bad shot I hit today, I think, so I’ll give myself a little bit of slack there.”
Todd provided breathing room that he couldn’t afford to surrender when he three-putted the par-4 16th hole from 29 feet to drop two behind. The first putt had too much steam and raced six feet by.
“I just forgot. I’ve had that putt before and ran it passed. It’s just faster than it looks,” he said. “I was kind of line-locked knowing that I probably needed a birdie or two coming in, and so I just forgot how fast it was.”
More noticeable was just how fast Straka, a fellow Bulldog, raced by him.
“On 8 or 9 I saw that Sepp had gotten to 22 or 23 under, which was obviously amazing,” said Todd, who closed with a 68 and tied for second with Alex Smalley at 265. “I was pretty amazed, but I did say in my interview yesterday, there’s been a 59 [by Paul Goydos in 2010]. Anybody could have gone out there and shot a great round today, and he did it.”
Straka did a lot of things with that one round. He set the tournament record for low final round by a winner, eclipsing Payne Stewart’s mark of 63 in the 1982 event at Oakwood CC in Coal Valley, Ill., and the tournament record for largest comeback after 18 holes when he trailed Jonas Blixt by 11 shots. He tied what is believed to be a tour record with the lowest round that includes a double bogey, joining four others, including Harry Higgs earlier this year at The American Express.
Finally, no player since 1983 had ever been lower on the leaderboard in a tour event after one round. Ian Poulter was 123rd after 18 holes before winning the 2018 Houston Open.
“Any time you play a tournament, you get in contention, you find out something new. That experience is invaluable,” Straka said. “So just knowing that I was in 130-something place after the first round and ended up winning, you just can’t ever really count yourself out because you could get hot any moment.”
And stay hot all the way to the podium.