It took 233 career starts, but Jason Kokrak is now a winner on the PGA Tour.
The 35-year-old bomber out of Xavier has been close numerous times in his career, posting three runner-ups and three tertiary finishes among 27 top 10s, but had not quite closed the deal. That is, until Sunday, when he used a sparkling, bogey-free 8-under 64 to outduel four-time Tour Champion Xander Schauffele down the stretch to win the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek.
It was the second consecutive week a tournament was held in Las Vegas, a result of the COVID-19 pandemic that moved the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges away from the Jeju Island, South Korea location it has held the previous three seasons. But this was nothing resembling the field of last week’s Shriners Hospitals For Children Open.
Shadow Creek hosted an absurdly strong field, one that would have had the entire top-5 in the OWGR had Dustin Johnson not tested positive for coronavirus at the beginning of the week. This was a near-elite field that Kokrak stared down.
Coming into the final round, it was not Kokrak who held the advantage, but rather Russell Henley who had a three-stroke lead. Kokrak was among the crowd that was three shots back. With Sunday going off in threes, he found himself in the penultimate trio.
However, that trio became a duo on the second hole after former world No. 1 Jason Day was forced to withdraw with neck issues. Kokrak and Schauffele were forced to move ahead and frequently wait while the threesome ahead of them was doing their work. Yet, despite what had to be frustrating, Kokrak and Schauffele were the stars of the final round.
Schauffele birdied Nos. 2, 3 and 5 to get out front of the pack. Kokrak was a little slower to get going, but once he carded birdies on 5, 6, 7, and 8, it was clear: this was going to be a two-person race.
Kokrak and Schauffele traded blows throughout the back nine, but the par-5 16th turned out to be the deciding hole. Neither were able to reach the green in three, but while Schauffele failed to get up-and-down from deep rough around the green, Kokrak was able to manage par from a bunker. With two holes to go, it was Kokrak who led by one.
Both parred 17, and on the par-5 18th, Kokrak showed that he had the mentality to close a lead, striping his drive down the center of the fairway. With a short pitch, and a two-putt, Kokrak’s 72nd hole birdied put the exclamation point on what ended up being a two-stroke win. The man who had been near the lead so many times, was finally the first name listed. Xavier had beaten Xander.
With two late birdies, Henley ended up taking a disappointing share of third, along with England’s Tyrrell Hatton who closed with the same number he opened with: a seven-under 65. Henley and Hatton finished at 17-under, three strokes back of Kokrak.
The final position in the top-5 was taken by unheralded Talor Gooch, who along with Lanto Griffin, played in the final Sunday group with Henley.
Final Top 10 Leaders
Pos-Player-To Par (Final Rd)
1. Jason Kokrak -20 (-8)
2. Xander Schauffele -18 (-6)
3. Tyrrell Hatton -17 (-7)
3. Russell Henley -17 (-2)
5. Talor Gooch -16 (-4)
6. Joaquin Niemann -13 (-6)
7. Bubba Watson -12 (-4)
7. Lanto Griffin -12 (E)
9. Sebastian Munoz -11 (-3)
10. Harris English -10 (-4)
Final Stat Leaders
Driving: 338.3 yards – Rory McIlroy (T21)
Fairways: 71.4% – Abraham Ancer (T28)
Greens: 76.4% – Jason Kokrak (1)
Putts/GIR: 1.564 – Tyrrell Hatton (T3)
Birdies: 26 – Jason Kokrak (1)
How Jason Kokrak Won The CJ Cup at Shadow Creek
Jason Kokrak won the CJ Cup in a way that was very dissimilar to how he had played most events in his Tour career. Kokrak, not surprisingly considering he is 6’4” 225lbs, is one of the Tour’s longest hitters. However, his game on the greens has not matched his prodigious work off the tees, as the nine-year Tour veteran has finished outside the top 110 in strokes gained: putting in each of the past six seasons. A year ago, he ranked 151st.
At Shadow Creek, Kokrak was a completely different golfer with his putter. After a pedestrian round 1 in that regard, he gained 4.7, 2.1, and 3.6 strokes on the field, respectively, with his putting. For the week, he gained 10.3 strokes, easily the best number in the field.
Kokrak came into the week with something of an advantage, as he is sponsored by MGM, who owns Shadow Creek, and he has played the course more than most of his competitors. That familiarity was likely a large reason why he was able to card 26 birdies for the week, which was the most in the field. He also led the field in greens in regulation, and was eighth in strokes gained: tee-to-green.
Kokrak’s Winning Stats
Driving: 303.8 yards (28th)
Fairways: 58.9 78.6% (33/56) (23rd)
Greens: 76.4% (55/72) (1st)
Putting: 1.600 (7th)
Eagles: 3 (1st)
Birdies: 22 (15th)
Scores: 26 Birdies, 40 Pars, 6 Bogeys
What It Means For Jason Kokrak
Jason Kokrak was the surprise name in the 30-man field to qualify for the Tour Championship at the end of the FedExCup playoffs in 2019. This win gives him legitimacy, and now nobody will be surprised if he makes it to East Lake again this season.
He had already qualified for most of the biggest events of the upcoming season, but now he has clinched a spot in The Masters for the next two editions.
In addition, his world ranking moves from 53rd to a career high 26th. In that process, he jumped the legendary Tiger Woods, and is nipping at the heels of 22-time winner worldwide Justin Rose for a spot in the top 25. Entering his prime, Kokrak has to be feeling like he could end up going so much higher.
Kokrak’s 2021 Season
Wins: 1 (CJ Cup)
Money: $1,912,931 (3rd)
FedExCup: 553 (4th)
OWGR Start/Now: 53/26
Jason Kokrak’s 64 led the Sunday field, and tied Xander Schauffele’s Friday for the lowest round of the week. The next closest on the final day was Tyrrell Hatton, who birdied 50% of his holes to shoot a 7-under 65, the same score he shot when he was atop the leaderboard on Thursday.
The 29-year-old is now ninth in the world rankings, a considerable jump from 32nd place at the beginning of the 2020 season. The winner of last week’s BMW PGA Championship, an elite European Tour event, Hatton has excelled in the 2020 calendar year, also winning March’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. He has five top-10 finishes in just 12 starts this year.
The young Chilean, Joaquin Niemann, netted yet another top 10 after a tremendous Sunday bogey-free 6-under 66 to finish…in sixth place. The 21-year-old carded just five bogeys and one double for the entire week. As it has seemed for three years, his stock is just going up and up.
Sunday’s biggest jump came from New Zealand’s Danny Lee who, one month ago, made headlines for the worst of reasons at the U.S. Open, six-putting from close range on the last hole of the third round, and subsequently withdrawling in shame. After three rounds in the 70s in Vegas, Lee posted a six-under 66 on Sunday to jump 24 spots from T45 to T21.
Two of the CJ Cup’s first three editions, including last year’s, was won by world No. 3 Justin Thomas, but he was unable to make the same magic happen at Shadow Creek.
The 13-time Tour Winner was at 10-under, and five strokes back of Henley through 54 holes, but could not do better than a 2-over 74 on Sunday, which dropped him form sixth to T12. Thomas bogeyed three of his final six holes, and struggled badly with his usually strong short game.
PGA Championship winner Collin Morikawa got himself into the late mix, as he usually does, as a Friday 65 had him just six back of Henley with one round to go, but the 22-year-old was uncharacteristically poor on Sunday, with four back nine-bogeys, including the final two holes, to shoot a 1-over 73 and finish with Thomas in a share of 12th place. After playing the first two rounds bogey-free, Morikawa had six of them on Sunday.
Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy had one of the most disastrous stretches of his career on Sunday, with a bogey-double-bogey-double stretch from 14 to 17, which led to a 2-over 74. The pride of Northern Ireland fell from T10 to T21 as a result. The world No. 5 is still trying to find the elite form he showed before the coronavirus pandemic.
“After I Made That Long Putt!
“I feel like right after he made that putt, I rolled it up there about six inches short so it was looking pretty good to me. Xander’s a long player, too. The par 5s, obviously 18’s very reachable, but 16 is not so much reachable, you can’t really hold the green in two. It’s a tough green complex.
“So I think after he made that long putt, I think it became a little bit of match play. But on 14 is a really tough pin, or 15’s a really tough pin, 16 is gettable but you’ve got to drive it in the fairway, put yourself in a good spot, but made a nice up-and-down. We were both feeding off each other’s energy, we were both making birdies on kind of opposite holes. I birdied 10, 11,
he birdied 12 and 13.
“I think it was a good match play, but we still had guys behind us that were definitely in the mix because 15, 16, 17 and 18 are all birdie holes with wedges in our hands.”
– Jason Kokrak, CJ Cup Champion