NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. – In his 10th season, in his 233rd tournament, Jason Kokrak can finally call himself a PGA Tour winner.
Kokrak earned every bit of it Sunday in the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek. He matched the best round of the tournament with an 8-under 64 to overcome a three-shot deficit at the start and win a duel on the back nine with Xander Schauffele.
“Couldn’t be happier,” said Kokrak.
The timing couldn’t be better. The CJ Cup moved from South Korea this year to Shadow Creek because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kokrak is an ambassador for MGM Resorts, which owns the prestigious Tom Fazio design.
“It feels like home,” Kokrak said. “I’ve played this golf course enough that I should know it by now.”
Kokrak began his rally with four straight birdies on the front nine, and birdie putts from 20 feet and 18 feet to start the back nine stretched his lead to two shots.
Schauffele answered with three straight birdies, the last one a 45-footer by using his putter from the thick collar of the 13th green to catch him. Then, it was a matter of who blinked first.
That turned out to be Schauffele on the par-5 16th, when he only managed to advance his shot from deep rough left of the fairway some 85 yards into more rough. Swinging with all his might, his third shot peeled off to the right into more rough well below the green, and he made his only bogey in his round of 66.
Kokrak also was in the left rough, hacked out to the right rough and put his third shot in the bunker. But he splashed it out to just inside 4 feet and made par for a one-shot lead, and Schauffele couldn’t catch up.
Kokrak, a 35-year-old from Ohio, all but clinched it when he drilled his drive into the fairway on the par-5 18th, leaving only a short iron to 25 feet. He two-putted for his final birdie of a round he won’t soon forget.
Russell Henley, who began the final round with a three-shot lead, never got anything going early and fell behind when he bogeyed the par-5 seventh and Kokrak was on his early run of birdies.
Henley’s hopes ended on the reachable par-4 11th when he drove over the green into thick rough and, facing a downhill chip, left it in the rough short of the green and made bogey on the second-easiest scoring hole at Shadow Creek. That put him four shots behind, and a late push of birdies was never going to be enough.
He closed with a 70 and tied for third with Tyrrell Hatton, who was coming off a victory last week in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. Hatton closed with a 65.
Kokrak played bogey-free on a course where trouble was never too far away. Justin Thomas, within five shots of the lead, has two straight bogeys on the front nine and three more in a four-hole stretch on the back for a 74. Rory McIlroy was at least headed for a good finish until he had a pair of bogeys and two double bogeys over the last five holes for a 74.
Making it even tougher on Kokrak and Schauffele was Jason Day, the third in their group, withdrew with a neck injury on the second hole. That meant a twosome amidst a course filled with threesomes, and a lot of waiting. They still played at the highest level, with Kokrak delivering all the key putts.
Kokrak earned a spot in the Masters next month from reaching the Tour Championship a year ago in August. Now he can plan on two trips to Augusta National, qualifying for the 2021 tournament by winning.