ALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — It was a coronation that turned into a horse race that concluded in a driving rainstorm, with Austria’s Sepp Straka winning by a nose in Sunday’s final round of the Honda Classic.
Straka’s final-round 66, which included three birdies over the last five holes, changed the face of the final round and made him the sixth first-time winner in the PGA Tour’s 2021-22 wraparound season. He’s also the fourth first time winner in the last five weeks.
Straka, 28, ruined a coronation that was meant all along for Daniel Berger. With a five-shot lead entering the day, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Berger, a Palm Beach native, would be crowned the Honda champion for the first time and at the same time get a little revenge — in 2015 the then-21-year-old shot a final round 64 but lost in a playoff to Ireland’s Padraig Harrington.
Berger’s five-shot edge after 54-holes tied the largest lead ever at PGA National and put him in the driver seat against his three closest competitors: Kurt Kitayama, Ireland’s Shane Lowry and Straka.
Ironically, Berger would be paired with Lowry in the final pairing, and Berger’s game quickly went sideways. He shot 4-over-par in the first six holes, with a double bogey and two bogeys.
At the same time, Lowry would convert two birdies in the first four holes to take the lead for the first time. It would be a lead he would not relinquish until Straka made a tap-in birdie on the 18th hole.
The coronation then turned into a horse race with Berger shooting a four-over 74 while making two birdies over the last 12 holes, one a from a greenside bunker on the seventh hole and one chip-in from off the 14th green.
His strokes gained putting rank in the final round was 73rd, telling the tale on what part of his game let him down.
Straka missed a 2-foot par putt for par on No. 1, which left him ticked off, but he was able to refocus and regroup.
“It didn’t really rattle me, which was nice,” Straka said of the missed putt. “I was obviously mad that I missed it. Those mistakes can add up, especially on a Sunday out here. But to make that putt on the next hole, had about a nine-footer-ish, something like that, to make that one was big to just kind of keep my confidence and make sure that I know that I’m still putting well.”
It would be the first of six birdies that Straka would make on Sunday, but none would be bigger than the tap-in on the 18th hole, to finally take the lead and walk to the scoring tent knowing that at the very least he had a playoff to prepare for.
On 18 Straka ripped a 334-yard tee shot and was left with 192 yards to the green, but from the time he hit his tee shot until he walked to his ball, the South Florida skies opened with near torrential rain pelting the players.
“We were lucky we got to hit our drive before the rain, which is huge,” Straka said. “I hit a pretty good drive down there, and, yeah, once we got there, it was a 7-iron. It was a perfect number, and then just started dumping rain. We ended up switching to a 6-iron, tried to hit the same shot, and pulled it off.”
Lowry, who was tied with Straka when the rains came, was not as lucky as he hit his worst tee shot of the day in the downpour and then had to scratch and claw to get a good look at birdie, which did not drop.
“I played the golf, good enough golf I felt to win the tournament,” Lowry said. “That bad weather came in just as we were hitting our tee shot on 18, which was as bad a break as I’ve got in a while.”
For Straka, not only is the $1,44 million his biggest check in his career, but a trip to Augusta and the Masters is also now scheduled for April.
“I knew going into the round that I had a chance,” Straka said. “This course is crazy. There’s no gimme holes at all. You’ve got to be on it. And there was only one guy I thought ahead of me, so I knew if I just kept my head down and just tried to score maybe the best score I could on every hole, just try to make the best swing I could, in the end there was a good chance of being there.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism