Over the past 13 months, Jason Kokrak has become addicted to winning.
After the 36-year-old failed to notch a win in any of his first 232 starts, he now has three victories in his last 27 starts after a back-nine birdie binge fueled an impressive comeback victory at the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open on Sunday.
Kokrak began his final round at Houston’s difficult Memorial Park Municipal Golf Course at 5-under-par, which had him sharing seventh-place, two strokes behind 54-hole leader, and Texas native, Scottie Scheffler.
It was remarkable that Kokrak was even still in contention through three rounds after his nightmare Saturday morning. He was in the midst of a tremendous second round on Friday, reaching 6-under through 11 holes, when a previous weather delay resulted in him needing to come back out in the morning to finish that second round. He came out early in surprisingly cold temperatures and played those last seven holes in a miserable 7-over-par, including a triple-bogey on 18. He still made the cut, but at 2-under for the tournament, he was eight strokes behind the 36-hole leader.
Kokrak immediately bounced back with a 4-under 66 in the third round, highlighted by four birdies on his back nine, which was actually the front nine. Getting to within two strokes of the lead heading into the final round was a lot more manageable, but he knew it would still be a considerable challenge to catch and pass Scheffler, a recent American Ryder Cup hero, who was looking for his first career Tour victory, after many close calls in the past two years.
It looked like it might finally be Scheffler’s day, as he hit the Sunday turn at 2-under for the day, and 9-under for the championship. However, back-to-back bogeys to start the back nine suddenly, and surprisingly, vaulted Martin Trainer into the lead. Trainer had been arguably the worst regular golfer on Tour the past two years, making just six cuts in 54 starts since the beginning of the 2020 season. He entered the week ranked 1310th(!) in the OWGR.
While the attention was back on Trainer and Scheffler, Kokrak suddenly caught fire, carding four-consecutive birdies on Nos. 13, 14, 15, and 16 to reach 5-under par for the day, and 10 under for the tournament. That hot streak was largely due to his flatstick, which was not surprising given that Kokrak has become one of the world’s best putters in the past year.
When Kokrak tapped in for par on the final hole, allowing him to shoot a 5-under 66 that was bettered by just one player in the field, he took a three-stroke lead with the final group only having two holes to play. Scheffler made a strong attempt at an eagle on the par-4 17th, but botched his short pitch after coming close to driving the green.
The leaderboard had been crowded for a while, but when the final putt of the week dropped, it was Kokrak who was two ahead of Scheffler, in addition to Kevin Tway, who similar to Trainer, was coming off a disastrous two seasons. The son of eight-time Tour winner Bob Tway had made just 17 cuts in 43 starts in those two seasons, and finished inside the top 25 just twice.
Finishing three strokes behind Kokrak was Kramer Hickok, while Trainer bogeyed his final two holes and finished in a tie for fifth-place. It was just Trainer’s second finish of better than 34th in 82 career Tour starts.
For Kokrak, it was a statement win. After the long winless drought to begin his career, he broke through with a victory last October at THE CJ CUP @ Shadow Creek, and notched his second win in May at the Charles Schwab Challenge. Interestingly enough, that win at the Charles Schwab also occurred in Texas, and also featured him overtaking a native Texan (Jordan Spieth) in the final round. Both Scheffler and Spieth were stars at the University of Texas.
Houston Open: Top 10
Pos-Player-To Par (Final Rd)
1. Jason Kokrak -10 (-5)
2. Kevin Tway -8 (-2)
2. Scottie Scheffler -8 (-1)
4. Kramer Hickok -7 (-1)
5. Joel Dahmen -6 (-5)
5. Martin Trainer -6 (E)
7. Robert Streb -5 (-5)
7. Sam Burns -5 (-3)
7. Cameron Tringale -5 (-2)
7. Russell Henley -5 (E)
How Jason Kokrak Won The Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open
After a wildly successful 2020-21 season, Kokrak had gotten his new season off to a rough start, missing the cut at the Shriners Children’s Open. Then in his most recent start at last month’s THE CJ CUP @ Summit, Kokrak opened with a 5-over 77 that put him in last place in the 78-man field. He was able to bounce back and work his way up to T54, however.
Kokrak stated that he did not feel good about his game at the beginning of the week, and even considered withdrawing before something clicked on the driving range on Tuesday. He opened the tournament with a 2-under 68, and played fantastic on Friday before the weather delay. He again showed resiliency by putting together a 65-66 weekend that was four strokes better than anyone else in the field.
His 24 birdies led the field for the week, and only one of his nine bogeys came on Sunday. He was second in the field in strokes gained: approach-the-green, helped largely by his ranking of he fourth in greens in regulation. True to his form in the past year, he also gained 8.6 strokes on the field for the week with his putter, which ranked third.
Kokrak’s Winning Numbers
Driving: 302.1 yards (11th)
Fairways: 34/56 61.5% (25th)
Greens: 54/72, 75% (3rd)
Putts/Per GIR: 86/1.593 (1st)
Scores: 24 Birdies, 37 Pars, 9 Bogeys, 1 Double
What It Means For Kokrak
Ranked 29th in the world, Kokrak will see a health bump in his OWGR, moving him past his career best of 25th. He also moved to seventh in the early FedExCup standings.
Most of all, the Xavier University product showed that his 2021 season was no fluke. He will be hoping the momentum and confidence will help him in the 2022 major season, as he has never finished better than T17 (2020 U.S. Open) in 18 career major starts.
Kokrak’s 2022 PGA Tour Season
Cuts Made: 2
Wins: 1 (Houston)
Additional Top 10: 0
Earnings: $1,370,085 (6th)
FedExCup Pts: 506 (7th)
World Rank Before/After: 29/22
Sunday’s Stars in Houston
The only man in the field to better Kokrak’s 5-under 65 on Sunday was Denny McCarthy, who started on the back nine and birdied three of his final four holes to shoot a 6-under 64. A 28-year-old who tallied three top 10s last season, McCarthy propelled a field-high 39 spots up the leaderboard from T50 to T11.
Two players matched Kokrak’s 65 in the final round, with the higher finisher being Joel Dahmen, who had four back-nine birdies, allowing him to jump 17 spots from T22 to T5. One of just three players in the field to not shoot any over par rounds on the week, Dahmen scored his first (and only) career victory last March in the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship.
The other 65 came from Robert Streb, whose bogey-free round jumped him 27 spots from T34 to T7, his second top-10 in five starts on the new season.
Sam Burns was at 5-under through 17 on Sunday before a double-bogey on the final hole tripped him up, but a 3-under 67 allowed him to join Streb at T7. His third top 10 in four season starts was enough to keep Burns atop the FedExCup Standings.
Sunday’s Stumbles in Houston
Matthew Wolff had an ace on the par-3 9th hole today, but unfortunately, six bogeys prevented him from playing the final round in red numbers, as he shot a 2-over 72 that dropped him from T2 to T11.
Despite his inconsistencies within tournaments, however, Wolff should be encouraged that he has finished T17 or better in all four of his 2022 season starts.
The 22-year-old is sixth in the FedExCup standings. Also starting the final round in a tie for second place, but playing even worse than Wolff was Jhonattan Vegas. The Venezuelan failed to card a single birdie in his final round, shooting a 5-over 75 that dropped him 24 places, all the way to T26.
Most notable among the five players who fell even further down the leaderboard was nine-time Tour winner Patrick Reed. The former Masters champ shot a 7-over 77 and saw his standing go from T34 to T61, a fall of 27 places. At 23rd in the OWGR, Reed was the fourth highest-ranked player in the Houston Open field.
“Got It Going…”
“Tuesday, I had a practice round and I hit it really bad, so Tuesday afternoon I decided to get on the driving range with my earbud in, with [swing coach] Drew Steckel in my ear, [caddie] D-Rob sending a few videos…
“I knew it wasn’t too far off; I knew it was just something small I needed to feel or tweak. I contemplated actually withdrawing because I was hitting it so bad, but I felt some nice things on the range and I got it going in the pro-am, and got off to a nice start.”
– Jason Kokrak
Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open Champion