SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – When you arrive at Desert Mountain, you know you’re in for a real test. Jack Nicklaus designed these courses framed by the Sonoran Desert and he left more than a few Golden Bear footprints.
Frank Esposito Jr. understood all that and left an imprint of his own Sunday to collect his second national title in four years. The 54-year-old PGA Teaching Professional at Forsgate Country Club in Monroe Township, New Jersey, posted a 4-under-par 68, capped by chipping in for eagle from in front of the 18th green, to win the 29th Senior PGA Professional Championship presented by Mercedes-Benz.
“When you first get here, you see the desert and it’s not marked ‘hazard,’ ” said Esposito, who hoisted the Leo Fraser Trophy for the second time since 2014. “So, you got to go in the bushes and hit it. Thank God, I didn’t go into any bushes and kept it in play. These are courses that make you think. Maybe it takes your mind off something else. It gets your brain into what you want to do.”
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Esposito finished with a 72-hole total of 12-under-par 276, good for a five-stroke triumph and became the sixth player in event history to win multiple titles. He earned a first-place prize of $21,500 from a total purse of $300,000. Jim Schuman of Scottsdale, Arizona, who had a 70, was runner-up at 281. Stuart Smith of Reno, Nevada, (68) was third at 282, and defending champion Steve Schneiter of Sandy, Utah (73), led a foursome at 284 that included Mike Small of Champaign, Illinois (68); Mark Mielke of Jupiter, Florida (72); and Chris Starkjohann of Oceanside, California (75).
Chris Kaufman of Coral Springs, Florida, added his name to the record book by firing a 7-under-par 65, tying the lowest final-round score in the Championship’s 29-year history, shared by Tom Herzan (2007) and Rick Karbowski (2005).
Kaufman, a PGA Teaching Professional at BallenIsles Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, began Sunday in 52nd place. He vaulted into a tie for 11th to earn his first appearance in the 79th KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship, May 22-27, 2018 at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
“My putter was really good,” said Kaufman, who needed only 22 putts. “I birdied every par-3, but I didn’t birdie any of the par-5s, which is kind of crazy. I hit a lot of greens and stayed away from the big numbers."
How good was Esposito’s focus? Just go back 24 hours when he turned on his cell phone after clinging to a one-stroke lead after 54 holes. One of his phone messages was from his biggest fan – his father, Frank Esposito Sr.
“My father congratulated me for the win,” said Esposito. “I called back to tell him, ‘It’s not over yet.’ What are you trying to do, jinx me?’
“My dad is a nervous Nellie, and such a big fan. He introduced me to the game and is my inspiration. I did it for him today and I texted him as soon as I finished. I had the nerves going from the first tee to the 18th tee and knowing all the shots you had to hit. But I also had a calming feeling knowing he was on my side. It’s pretty neat.”
Esposito finished 8-under-par on the par-5s for the week. He never relinquished the lead from the 18th hole on Saturday, and ensured that he was not about to wilt thanks to a pair of par saves on the par-5 fourth hole, and blasted out of a bunker in front of No. 9 to within six inches.
“You don’t want to do anything crazy when you’re around the lead,” said Esposito. “You want to be as stress free as possible.”
Schuman, the 1996-97 Assistant PGA Professional Champion who works most of the year at Blue Mound Country Club in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, was the only challenger to make a late charge at Esposito. He came within three strokes of the lead before Esposito’s final dramatics.
“I finished fairly strong and was happy as could be,” said Schuman. “We were trying to manage as best as possible without too many major issues, and if we could get a few putts to fall all the better.”
Esposito surprised himself by his ability to “dial in front yardages” in the higher elevation. “I was just trying to be patient,” he said, “and this is the kind of course where you have to be patient.”
He left no doubt that he would power his way to the finish by making a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 11; then hit 7-iron to the fringe on the 504-yard No. 12 hole and chipped to five feet and made that birdie putt. His lone bogey came at No. 16, when he mishit an approach over the green from an awkward angle.
The first time he knew where he stood on the scoreboard was when a PGA Rules official alerted him on the 18th fairway. “I found out I was up by four,” said Esposito. “From there, I hit 6-iron from 211 yards as close to the front edge of the green as I could. That chip in for eagle was just a bonus. I was just trying to hit it up close.”
Esposito led a group of 35 players earning a berth in the 79th KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship. They included: Joe Boros, Saxonburg, Pennsylvania; Mark Brown, Oyster Bay, New York; Brian Cairns, Northville, Michigan; Walt Chapman, Knoxville, Tennessee; Joe Daley Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; Jim Empey, Boise, Idaho; Jim Estes, Germantown, Maryland; Gene Fieger, Naples, Florida; Tim Fleming, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Mike Genovese, Pace, Florida; Kevin Hayashi, Hilo, Hawaii; Chris Kaufman, Coral Springs, Florida; Darrell Kestner, Glen Cove, Glen Cove, New York; Neal Lancaster, Smithfield, North Carolina; Brad Lardon, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Mark Mielke, Jupiter, Florida; Rick Morton, Jacksonville, North Carolina; John Nieporte, Boca Raton, Florida; Mike O’Toole, Noblesville, Indiana; Sam Randolph, Fort Worth, Texas; Steve Schneiter, Sandy, Utah; Dirk Schultz, Hagerstown, Maryland; Jim Schuman, Scottsdale, Arizona; Rob Sedorcek, Ballwin, Missouri; Sonny Skinner, Sylvester, Georgia; Mike Small, Champaign, Illinois; Stuart Smith, Reno, Nevada; Chris Starkjohann, Oceanside, California; Kirk Stauffer, Bradford, Pennsylvania; Ricky Touma, Olney, Maryland; Mark Tucker, New Hartford, New York; Gus Ulrich, Whispering, North Carolina; Roy Vucinich, Moon Township, Pennsylvania; and Rob Wilkin, Overland Park, Kansas.
The Senior PGA Professional Championship is supported by GolfAdvisor.com and John Deere.
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