Sean Martin / PGATOUR.COM
HOUSTON, TX – On Tuesday, Jason Kokrak considering withdrawing. He lifted a trophy on Sunday.
Kokrak claimed the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open for his third victory in his last 28 PGA TOUR starts. He’s been one of the TOUR’s most successful players since the start of last season, but there were several reasons this victory seemed unlikely.
He was struggling so much with his swing that his coach, Drew Steckel, considered flying in from Las Vegas for an emergency session. Then Kokrak made a mess of the final holes of his second round, a stretch that he termed “a debacle.”
He was undoubtedly the best player in the Houston Open’s second half, however, and by Sunday afternoon he had removed any drama by making four consecutive back-nine birdies.
Kokrak shot 10-under 270 to earn his third PGA TOUR title, finishing finish two shots ahead of Kevin Tway and Scottie Scheffler. Kokrak moved to seventh in the FedExCup with the win.
Kokrak, a self-described “slow learner,” was winless in his first 232 PGA TOUR starts but has now won three times in the last 13 months. Only FedExCup champion Patrick Cantlay, who won four times last season, has more wins since the start of the 2020 season.
“I don’t know what happened, if I slept too much or whatever,” said Kokrak.
A triple-bogey at 18 gave him a 41 on the back nine of his second round. That matches the highest nine-hole score by a winner on the PGA TOUR in the last 25 years.
Kokrak was nine back at the Houston Open’s halfway point, but his score of 9-under 131 in the final two rounds was lowest in the field by four shots.
Two of his wins have now come in Texas, and in events where Longhorns held the 54-hole lead.
The first was in May, when Jordan Spieth, just weeks removed from his first win in nearly four years, took a one-shot lead over Kokrak into the final round of the Charles Schwab Challenge. A passionate, and partisan, gallery cheered loudly for the hometown favorite, but it was Kokrak who won by two shots after Spieth struggled to a final-round 73.
Scottie Scheffler was the Longhorn in the lead this time. He started Sunday with a one-shot advantage over a tightly-bunched leaderboard.
Scheffler still was out front when he made the turn at Memorial Park. He bogeyed the first two holes on the back nine, however, to hand the lead to Martin Trainer, who holed a 71-foot birdie putt on No. 11 to reach 9 under.
Trainer, winner of the 2019 Puerto Rico Open, arrived in Houston having made just six of his last 54 cuts. His second win on TOUR also would have been just the second top-25 finish of his career.
The hot putter that had carried him to the top of the leaderboard cooled, however, as he bogeyed three of the final five holes.
Kokrak seized the opportunity, surging ahead with four consecutive birdies on Nos. 13-16. He made a 13-footer on No. 13. A 23-footer on the next hole gave him a birdie on Sunday’s hardest hole; it was one of just three birdies on the 14th all day. Then the long hitter knocked back-to-back wedge shots within 6 feet of the hole.
Kokrak, 36, credits Steckel, who has been his coach for five years, with helping him take his career to a new level. They’ve quieted the long hitter’s lower body to bring added consistency. His putting has also drastically improved. He was sixth in Strokes Gained: Putting last season after ranking outside the top 100 in that stat in each of the previous six seasons. He holed five putts longer than 20 feet this week to gain more than eight strokes on the greens.
“My game was not in top form and I definitely made the best of it, made a lot of birdies, made a lot of nice putts,” Kokrak said. “The putter was hot this week.”
And it proved that victory can come at any time, even when you least expect it.
Canadian Notes: Mackenzie Hughes finished at even par in a tie for 29th. Nick Taylor was T41 at 2-over.