October 18, 2020 - 5:08 pm
Updated October 18, 2020 - 7:11 pm
Jason Kokrak and Xander Schauffele wasted no time Sunday turning the final round of the CJ Cup into match play. In the end, it was the man who knew Shadow Creek Golf Course better than anyone in the field that became the champion.
Kokrak shot a final-round 64 to finish at 20-under, holding off Schauffele on the back nine and winning for the first time on the PGA Tour.
Kokrak tasted victory in his 233rd start and nearly a decade of tournaments on the PGA Tour.
“When you wait 10 years to win, it’s a pretty special thing,” said Kokrak, who was born in Canada but grew up in Ohio, which he still calls home.
While most players were seeing Shadow Creek for the first time this week, Kokrak estimates he’s played it more than 25 times as an ambassador for MGM Resorts.
“I’ve played quite a few rounds here at Shadow Creek, so I know the greens pretty well and I know the intricacies of this place,” he said. It’s definitely a place I feel comfortable at.”
Playing in the next-to-last group on Sunday, Kokrak and Schauffele had separated from the field at the turn. Schauffele had four birdies on the opening nine, while Kokrak had five, including four in a row on Nos. 5-8.
“It was a good fight,” said Schauffele, who was looking for his sixth win in four years. “I shot 6-under in the final round. Overall, no complaints.”
Almost match play
To make it even more of a match-play situation, the leaders played as a twosome when the third member of their group, Jason Day, withdrew on the second hole with neck issues.
“We got along really well, and we definitely fed off each other, and it definitely showed in our scores,” Schauffele said.
The par-5 16th proved to be the pivotal hole in the round. Tied at 19-under, Kokrak got up and down from a greenside bunker to save par, while Schauffele failed to do the same from the front rough.
A birdie at the 72nd hole made Kokrak’s final margin two shots over Schauffele. Third-round leader Russell Henley and first-round leader Tyrrell Hatton were another shot back.
Kokrak has always been one of the longest hitters on tour, but it was his putting that carried him at Shadow Creek. He made 26 birdies for the week, including eight on Sunday.
“I made some nice putts on the front nine and a couple of par saves here and there, but I couldn’t be happier,” Kokrak said.
For the week, he made 402 feet worth of putts. Most of the credit, he said, goes to caddie David Robinson, who reads all of his putts.
“I hit them on the right lines at the right speed,” he said. “With the greens being firm, fast and quite a bit of break around these holes, if you don’t have the right speed you’re not going to make a lot of putts.”
Schauffele complained all week about the pace of play, and once Day left their group both leaders knew there would be even more standing and waiting. Both said they were lucky to be stuck in a friendly twosome.
“Xander and I are friends,” said Kokrak. “And since we were both playing well, we pushed ourselves along.”
Schauffele painted a more specific picture.
“Kokrak’s about a foot taller than I am, so we’re doing our old-man shuffle walking around, trying to walk as slow as possible and stall,” said Schauffele. “We talked all day. I think I was lucky and so was he.”
Majors champs falter
A pack of major championship winners who were lurking heading into the final round never made a dent on Sunday. Bubba Watson shot 68 to finish in a tie for seventh, but the other big names vanished.
Day started the round five back, but he triple-bogeyed the first hole, and found trouble on the second before walking off the course with the latest in a growing history of back and neck issues.
Defending champion Justin Thomas (74), Collin Morikawa (73) and Rory McIlroy (74) fell well off the leaderboard. Most shocking was McIlroy, who played the final five holes in 6-over to wipe out a strong front nine.
After waiting 10 years to win and erasing what he called a lot of scar tissue, Kokrak must now see if he had a hot week or can become a regular contender on tour. Schauffele has no doubt it will be the latter.
“He just beats the crap out of (the ball),” Schauffele said of the winner. “I think what he proved was he finally started rolling in some putts. It kind of shows how dangerous he can be out here.”
Greg Robertson is a freelance reporter who covers golf for the Review-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org