And the last shall be first. Big-hitting rookie Jason Kokrak, the last player to get into this week’s Albertsons Boise Open on the Nationwide Tour, backed off the throttle on Sunday and earned his first career win.
Kokrak, who got the call on Tuesday morning that he was in the field, was nearly flawless en route to a two-stroke win over John Mallinger. The 26-year-old from Charlotte started the final round at the Hillcrest Country Club tied for the lead and went on to post a bogey-free, 4-under 67 to become the Nationwide Tour’s 10th first-time winner and fourth rookie winner in 2011.
“It hasn’t really set in yet, maybe it will on the plane tomorrow,” he said after picking up a check for $130,500 and moving from No. 70 to No. 13 on the money list. “I have no words to explain it. I honestly have no idea what was going through my mind out there. I just tried to stay calm and keep my heart from racing.”
The 2007 Xavier University grad was one of only two alternates to make the field of 156.
“I was in Denver and on my way from North Carolina when I got the call,” he said. “I was going to come out here either way. If I didn’t get in, I probably would have just gone to San Diego to visit a friend and get ready for next week.”
His victory gets him close enough to start thinking about next year because the 25 leading money winners will earn PGA Tour cards for the 2012 season. There are only five full-field events left before the season-ending Tour Championship.
“My goal at the beginning of the year was jus to make the Tour Championship,” he said. “It’s always been my dream to play on Tour since I was a kid.”
Kokrak, No. 2 on the tour in average driving distance (317.4 yard), played the final 59 holes with only one bogey thanks to a more conservative approach.
“I tried to pick and choose where my length was most advantageous,” he said. “The key was picking the right time to be aggressive and the right time to play away from the pins. It was important to leave yourself a lot of uphill putts and also yourself plenty of opportunities.”
Kokrak two-putted the trio of par 5s and added another birdie at the 199-yard eighth hole, where he hit “a buttery 9-iron to six feet.” He admitted that he and his caddie had discussed hitting wedge there.
Kokrak and playing partner Rahil Gangjee (73/tied for 12th) started the day at 14 under par, but were staring at a logjam behind them – 19 players were within three shots of the lead.
“The greens are so firm and quick that if you’re not careful, you can suddenly have a lot of 10- 20-footers,” said Kokrak. “I hit a lot of quality golf shots even though I didn’t hit it too close. I kept it in front of me, kept it in the fairways and got a couple of breaks.”
Kokrak, who grew up in Ohio, hit 15 greens during Sunday’s finale and gave himself plenty of chances for birdies.
“I gave myself a couple of good looks on the back side,” he said. “I scared the hole a couple of times from 20-25 feet.”
His biggest putts were those to save par. The first came at No. 14 where his 40-footer for birdie came up about 10 feet short.
Rather than attack the 293-yard, par-4 15th hole, Kokrak went conservative off the tee and hit an 8-iron.
“At sea level, I play my 8-iron to about 180 yards,” he said. “I don’t know how far it went but we only had about 75 yards to the hole.”
He didn’t make birdie there but a two-putt birdie at the par-5 16th (he hit 9-iron for his second shot) all but wrapped things up for him, though he did need a six-footer to save par at No. 17.
At the end, all of his challengers fell short. Mallinger, who tied for third here a year ago, rolled in a 40-foot eagle putt at the par-5 16th to reach 16 under and get close to Kokrak, who showed no signs of succumbing to the pressures.
Several players made late birdies to climb up the leaderboard, but Kokrak was never challenged for the lead.
Camilo Benedetti (66), first- and second-round leader Jonas Blixt (67) and veteran Ken Duke (67) tied for third at 15 under, three shots back.
Paul Claxton (68), Brian Smock (68), John Riegger (69), Billy Horschel (70) and David Hearn (70) shared sixth place at minus-14.
--Winner Jason Kokrak played the final 59 holes without a bogey. Runner-up John Mallinger was bogey-free on the weekend. Jonas Blixt led the tournament in putting with 102 total.
--Jason Kokrak finished second this week in Average Driving Distance (343.6 yards). National Long-Driving Champion Jamie Sadlowski was first this week (349.8 yards). Sadlowski, making his first professional start, made the cut this week but his 287 total (+3) was 21 shots back of Kokrak.
--Runner-up John Mallinger jumped from No. 35 to No. 12 on the money list with his finish this week. Mallinger, a member of the PGA Tour who didn’t qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs, has made only five starts this year. In his last three starts, he has tied for third at the News Sentinel Open, and finished second at the Mylan Classic and second again this week.
--Third-year pro Jonas Blixt rebounded from a disastrous 74 on Saturday to shoot a 4-under 67 Sunday. Blixt earned enough to jump four spots on the money list to No. 10.
--The Nationwide Tour heads to California next week for the Soboba Golf Classic in San Jacinto.