Nobody would have been faulted for overlooking Ted Potter, Jr. going into the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, despite being the 54-hole co-leader.
First off, he was paired with World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who has two wins among his eight top 10 finishes in this tournament.
Potter has also been almost completely irrelevant on the PGA Tour since his shocking win at the 2012 Greenbrier Classic, coming off four-consecutive years plagued with injury and poor play.
There was considerable doubt about whether he could handle the Sunday pressure. He’s gotten himself in the news more in 2018, but after leading last month’s Farmers Insurance Open with a first-round 66, he finished 75-74-82 to plummet all the way to T73.
Then on Saturday, playing the Monterey Peninsula course, an unbelievable start (11-under through 15 holes) had Potter on the 59 watch. But needing to play the final three holes just 1-under, he finished par-bogey-bogey for a disappointing 62.
None of that seemed to matter today.
After a three-putt bogey on the first hole, Potter took control of the tournament with a stellar front nine, making the turn in 3-under.
Then, in pole position, he stoically parred the entire back nine, staring down some of the best golfers on Tour and making clutch shot after clutch shot in the process.
In the end, it was Potter on top of the leaderboard, shooting a final-round 3-under 69, and winning by three strokes over the intimidating quartet of Johnson, Jason Day, Chez Reavie, and four-time Pebble Beach champion Phil Mickelson.
FINAL TOP 10
1 Ted Potter, Jr. -17
T2 Phil Mickelson -14
T2 Chez Reavie -14
T2 Jason Day -14
T2 Dustin Johnson -14
6 Kevin Streelman -13
7 Scott Stallings -12
T8 Jimmy Walker -11
T8 Kevin Chappell -11
T8 Grayson Murray -11
T8 Paul Casey -11
T8 Brian Gay -11
T8 Patrick Rodgers -11
T8 Troy Merritt -11
T20 Jordan Spieth, Brandt Snedeker, Branden Grace -8
T26 K.J. Choi, Jon Rahm, Steve Stricker -7
T35 Bubba Watson, Patrick Cantlay, Pat Perez -6
T43 Shane Lowry, Beau Hossler -5
T55 Bryson DeChambeau, Vaughn Taylor -3
T62 Matt Kuchar -2
HOW POTTER WON
Largely off the strength of his third-round 9-under 62, the 34-year-old Potter, the world’s 245th ranked golfer, was a 54-hole co-leader with Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 1 ranked golfer.
A bogey on the first hole drew even more attention to his recently dominant playing partner. That would be the only square on his final round scorecard.
“The first hole I hit two good shots. I hit the fairway, hit the green and did what you’re supposed to do, but I just didn’t realize that putt was that fast on the first putt. That kind of set the mood for me the rest of the day,” said Potter.
It seemed to work, because birdies on 2, 4, 6, and 7, combined with some surprising struggles by DJ, gave Potter the lead at the turn.
On the back nine, it seemed like just a matter of time before either Potter crumbled, or one of the big names caught him. Neither happened.
Nine back-nine holes became nine pars for Potter, who never looked the slightest bit shaken, despite this being his first time in serious contention in five years.
“I struck the ball well and hit a lot of my targets out there coming in with the pressure on me. Knowing that — I knew I had probably a two-shot lead, but you never know what could happen out there,” continued Potter.
“I just hit a lot of quality golf shots coming down the stretch knowing I had to.”
Johnson fell further back down the stretch, and when Mickelson, Reavie, and Day all failed to eagle the signature 18th hole (all three carded a par), Potter just needed to not completely trip over himself on the last hole to win, which he did with a tap-in par, after his birdie attempt skidded just inches past the hole.
Potter, who led the field in birdies for the week, hit 12 of 14 fairways in the final round, and was even better around the greens.
Impressively, he was 6-for-6 on Sunday in par saves from off the green. Everyone waited for him to wilt, and it just never happened.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR POTTER
Potter, a man who once had a Web.com Tour season where he entered 24 events and missed 24 cuts, is no longer a one-hit wonder.
His PGA Tour record was abysmal since that 2012 win at The Greenbrier. In 55 starts over the two-plus seasons after his victory in West Virginia, Potter had just two top-10s.
From 2015-2017, he had just four Tour starts, largely due to a freak ankle injury that happened off-course at the RBC Canadian Open one year. He got his Tour card back for 2018 by playing well on the Web.com Tour, and in eight starts coming into this week, he had made just three cuts, which led to finishes of T28, T13, and T73.
Now, he is exempt for another two years, and he now perhaps has the confidence to get his career back on the trajectory it was after his first victory. It helps tremendously that his ankle is finally healed.
“It’s definitely a big confidence boost. Being away from the game, I hadn’t won since 2012. But after the ankle and everything I’ve gone through playing the Web.com last year to get my card back and to come back this early until the season is just crazy,” said Potter.
“I’m very happy right now.”
In most great conditions at Pebble Beach, Potter was not the only player in the field to make the most of his Sunday.
Grayson Murray used a 5-under stretch from holes 2-6 to shoot a co-low-round 66 to rocket 42 spots up the leaderboard, and into a tie for 8th place. It was a tremendous finish for the 24-year-old who had gone T75-T70 the past two weeks.
The only man to rise further on the final day leaderboard was Brandon Harkins, who matched Murray’s 66, which moved him up 45 spots, into a tie for 15th.
For the little-known Harkins, that makes three finishes inside the top 15 in his last four starts. He led the field for the week in strokes gained: approach-the-green, and hit 15 of 18 greens on Sunday.
The final day for runner-up Chez Reavie was a mixture of good and bad. He got off to a furious start, reaching 5-under by the turn, but he was unable to take advantage of his opportunities on the back nine, coming in with eight pars and a bogey.
A final round 4-under 68 was among the best in the field, but he would have liked to have finished better, especially after he lost in a playoff the week prior at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
LIMPING TO THE FINISH
Dustin Johnson, the 54-hole co-leader, has a phenomenal history at Pebble Beach, but his Sunday in this year’s edition was uncharacteristically poor.
In his last start, just over a month ago in Hawaii, DJ shot a final-round 65 in an 8-stroke romp over a strong field at the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
On this Sunday, he looked much more mortal, cancelling out four birdies with four bogeys, and never getting more than one stroke under par in a round of even-par 72.
Veteran mainstay Steve Stricker, 50, played well enough over the first three days to reach 11-under, which gave him a date in the penultimate Sunday group.
Back-to-back double bogeys on hole Nos. 5 and 6 took the wind out of his sails early, and he was unable to recover, shooting a 4-over 76 and dropping from T5 to T26.
Sundays might officially be a problem for world No. 2 Jon Rahm, who matched Stricker’s 76, in spite of making the turn in 2-under, as a 6-over back nine, which included three straight boegys from 10-12, knocked the Spanish wunderkind into that T26 tie.
The poor Sunday was especially troubling for Rahm, as it marks the third consecutive tournament where he was in contention coming into Sunday and then collapsed.
PHIL’S FINE FORM
Fan favorite Phil Mickelson was coming into the week in good form, after a T5 finish in Phoenix. The four-time winner of this event did even better this week, using a final-round 5-under 67 to finish T2, the second time in the past three years that Phil has posted a runner-up here.
“This has been a really fun week. I had a great partner, Jimmy Dunne. We had a fun first three rounds and I gave it a shot there on the back nine and it was a good solid round,” said a smiling Mickelson.
“It wasn’t enough because Ted’s been playing so well. But it was nice to feel the nerves and to make a couple birdies coming in down the stretch.”
Phil started the day five back, but did not make much noise until late on the back nine, with birdies on 14, 16, and 17. He needed an eagle on the last hole, but an aggressive approach to the green backfired, and he did well to save par.
Despite yet another close call in a five-year winless drought for Mickelson, he is very encouraged with his performance the past two weeks.
“It was nice to make some birdies coming down the stretch. It’s a little disappointing it wasn’t enough, but it’s another great week here at Pebble Beach,” said Mickelson.
Going into Phoenix, Phil had dropped to No. 49 in the world and was in danger of falling outside the top 50 for the first time since 1993(!). Now, with back-to-back top-five finishes, the 47-year old is back inside the top 40 as he heads to Los Angeles.
“Riviera is a great ball-striker’s golf course. And if you drive it well there, the second shot is where Riviera thrives and challenges you,” continued Mickelson.
“And I’m driving it as well as I have in a long time and if I continue to strike it the way I have, it’s going to be another good week. And I can’t wait to get started.”
“It’s definitely pleasing, I struggled there, you break your ankle and don’t know what’s going to happen with your golf swing or your career that way. To come back from that, it’s just unbelievable right now.”
– Ted Potter, Jr.