PALM BEACH GARDENS, FL – The Honda Classic beckoned Sunday morning with the potential to be a runaway, with Daniel Berger, a local boy, in the lead by five. That’s a pretty commanding advantage at most places. The Champion Course at PGA National, though, stands as a brutish bouncer at the door. It simply wouldn’t allow such a thing.
Instead, we got drama – heaps of it, in fact – and a late rain shower, an uncharacteristic off-day from Berger (74) and a first-time winner in Sepp Straka. Straka, a Georgia Bulldog by way of Austria – how many Austrians do you know with a Southern drawl? – started terribly with a missed 2-footer for par at the first hole, but finished brilliantly. He made birdies on three of his last five holes, played the Bear Trap in 1 under, shot 4-under 66 and became the first Austrian-born player to win on the PGA TOUR.
Oh, and now a Masters invitation beckons, as well. It was a lot to take in for a 28-year-old who moved to Valdosta, Georgia, at age 14 and later became a Georgia Bulldog.
“It’s crazy,” Straka said. “It’s a lifelong dream of mine just to be heading to Augusta in a month or so. It’s still surreal. I’m sure it’ll sink in here before long, but yeah, it’s just crazy.”
Lowry shot a bogey-free 67. Afterward, he accepted his ill-timed fate, chalking it up to that lottery we know as golf. But he did say having to play the entire 72nd hole in a driving rain – there was no electricity in the storm, so golfers played on – was “as bad a break as I’ve got in a while.”
Lowry turned in a beautiful card – 15 pars and three birdies on a golf course where danger lurks at every corner – but in the end he failed to make birdie over his final seven holes, and therein was the difference.
In the end, it was hard to figure out who was happier: Straka, the first-time winner in his fourth TOUR season, or all of his fellow Bulldogs who stuck around to watch him win.
“I think it validates a lot for him,” said fellow Bulldog Chris Kirk, who is Straka’s standing partner in Tuesday practice games on TOUR. Kirk was in the mix until he was derailed by a triple bogey at the 15th hole, the start of PGA National’s Bear Trap. He tied for seventh.
“Obviously, he knows how great of a player he is – we all know how great of a player he is – but getting that first win, it’s unreal, for sure. Making it to the PGA TOUR is one thing. Winning out here is a completely different story. It’s incredible.”
Kirk said Straka is one of the best driver and 3-wood players that he knows, and winning was just a matter of time. Straka tied for 10th at the Olympic Men’s Golf Competition last summer, representing Austria, where his father is from, and hoped to ride some momentum out of that. But his fall wasn’t very good. He started working with instructor John Tillery in December, just to “fine-tune” some things. And his play of late has been much better. Starting five shots back on Sunday did little to slow him.
Straka would birdie the par-4 16th (19 feet) to tie for the lead, and he then made one final birdie at the last. He led the Honda field in driving accuracy (47 of 56 fairways), hit 15 greens on Sunday, and when he missed, scrambled well all week (13 of 17, which ranked third).
Berger’s five-shot cushion heading into Sunday was the largest 54-hole lead in tournament history. By the time he and Lowry stood on the sixth tee, they were tied. Lowry got there with birdies on the first and fourth holes, and Berger got there with a double bogey at the par-5 third and bogeys at the fifth and sixth. The goal for Lowry was to slowly cut into Berger’s big lead. When Berger played his first six in 4 over, Lowry was a co-leader. It came a lot sooner than he had expected.
“I was ready for anything out there today,” Lowry said. “I feel like mentally, I’m very good at the minute. And yeah, before I knew it, I was leading the golf tournament. It was great. I really enjoyed it. Quite nerve-wracking.”
Berger can be tougher than sandpaper, too, a competitor who loves the arena, much like Lowry. He holed a bunker shot for birdie at the par-3 seventh and, as hard as he fought, he would not make another until he holed a 28-foot chip at the par-4 14th. He went down swinging, hitting 3-wood right into the water guarding the par-5 18th, which led to bogey and a fourth-place finish. It was Berger’s third top-four at his hometown TOUR event.
“I didn’t play well, so I didn’t win the golf tournament,” Berger said. “That’s unfortunate, but I actually felt good. I just didn’t hit the shots that I needed to at the right time.
“That’s the way golf goes. There are plenty of guys that hit great shots today, and that’s why they’re winning golf tournaments.”