When the final putt dropped on Sunday, Patton Kizzire picked his ball out of the hole, gave a subtle fist pump, and looked up in amazement to acknowledge the crowd that had cheered him on as he finally realized his dream of winning on the PGA Tour.
Kizzire had come close – he finished second at the Safeway Open to open the 2016-17 season and was coming off two consecutive top-10 finishes – before finally breaking through to win the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
“[A feeling of] satisfaction, really,” Kizzire said. “I’m really pleased with this past week and how I’ve been playing. A lot of the hard work has been paying off. But I’m hungry for more.”
As just about any Tour player will tell you, winning a PGA Tour event for the first time is one of the toughest tasks in golf, and Kizzire’s inaugural victory didn’t come easy.
After shooting a Saturday 76 to fall out of the lead last week in Las Vegas, the Auburn alum bounced back to post a 64 on Sunday and finish in a tie for fourth. That momentum carried over to Mexico, where Kizzire carded a career-low round of 62 on Thursday.
“I’ve been putting some good rounds together, hitting the ball well and putting well in the same round,” Kizzire said. “So for it all to come together Thursday of Mayakoba was definitely a good jump start to the tournament.”
Kizzire had to deal with the weather as rain forced him to finish his second round on Saturday. The original plan was to play the third round immediately following completion of the second round, but the rain delayed play once again.
Kizzire now had to endure a 36-hole marathon on Sunday. After making a birdie at 17 and carding a third-round 66, Kizzire held a one-shot lead over Rickie Fowler entering the final round.
“I figured I was going to be in the lead. So it wasn’t as if I didn’t know I was in contention,” Kizzire said. “I would say I still had to sleep on the lead a little bit. It definitely gave me some comfort knowing I had 36 chances to make birdies. There was a little bit of a comfort factor there just knowing it was going to be a marathon, not a sprint. It was an exciting day no matter what.”
As the final round began, it became clear that Fowler—winner of four PGA Tour events and the 7th ranked player in the world—was going to give Kizzire all he could handle.
After making birdies on three of his first five holes, Kizzire looked like he was going to open a big lead as he walked up to the green at the 6th. Trailing by four and looking to stay in it, Fowler rolled in a 40-foot putt for a birdie while Kizzire missed from close range.
Kizzire was in prime position at the 7th before chunking a pitch shot and leaving it well short of the green. As what looked to be a birdie opportunity turned into a second straight par, Kizzire showed his first sign of nerves.
“That was definitely an opportunity for Rickie to take a bunch of momentum from me,” Kizzire said. “I knew I was playing well, I knew that you’re not going to take advantage of every opportunity. I certainly wanted to get those on six and seven because they were as good opportunities as I was going to have all day. I just kept believing in myself and was just looking for the next opportunity really. Putting that behind me.”
Kizzire nearly eagled the 11th, but his perfect wedge shot somehow hung on the lip. The birdie moved him to -19 and gave him a four-shot lead over Fowler.
Kizzire fought the left side of the golf course down the stretch. His tee shot on 13 found the hazard, but he recovered to save par. Another par out of the left trees at 14 helped Kizzire maintain a three-shot advantage.
“The saves on 12, 13 and 14 were really big,” Kizzire said. “I’d been putting well all week and had been leaning on the putter. That was what had kind of gotten me there. I certainly hit the ball great, at times, in order to make that many birdies. But the par saves on 12, 13 and 14 were crucial.”
Leading by three with just three holes to play, Kizzire looked to be in prime position to earn his first PGA Tour win, but his battle with Fowler was far from over.
Fowler got a shot back at 16, and his birdie putt at 17 never left the center of the cup. Just like that, Kizzire’s lead was just one heading to 18, and Fowler looked to be finding that closing form he showed in dramatic wins at The Players and the Scottish Open in 2015.
“I knew Rickie was going to make a charge. I expected him to make birdies,” Kizzire said. “I think it was better for me in the long run that he did make it really difficult on me, just for my growth as a player. So I was embracing that and I kind of liked it being that interesting heading into the last hole.”
Playing first at 18, Fowler launched a drive down the middle of the fairway to put the pressure on Kizzire. Choosing to play for position rather than distance, Kizzire hit a hybrid off the tee. Kizzire pulled his tee shot into the left rough, just right of the fairway bunker, giving him a very difficult approach.
Standing on the edge of the bunker, Kizzire hit the shot of the tournament, onto the green about 20 feet from the hole.
“That was a really tough one,” Kizzire said. “It’s something you don’t practice very often, but I’m able to put the club on the ball with a lot of different swings. I’ve had to rely on my hand-eye coordination. So I just kind of had to put the club on the ball and get it heading toward the middle of the green, and it worked out perfectly.”
Fowler, who had a much easier shot from the fairway, pulled his approach to the left edge of the green.
Fowler’s birdie putt looked like it was going to have a chance, but stopped a couple feet short, giving Kizzire two putts for the win. Kizzire’s birdie attempt just missed, but the ensuing tap in gave him a one-shot victory.
The win gives Kizzire a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour, a trip to Maui for the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January, and spots in the 2018 Masters, Players Championship and PGA Championship.
“The Masters is one that I’ve always looked forward to,” Kizzire said. “I’ve been going to Augusta ever since I was a kid with my dad. I’m looking forward to all of the big tournaments I’m going to get in. Looking forward to all the opportunities, It’s going to be fun.”
While it was Kizzire’s first win at golf’s highest level, he is no stranger to winning golf tournaments. The 31-year old turned professional in 2008 and was the Web.com Tour Player of the Year in 2015.
“I’ve worked hard for a long time. I’ve had a lot of support and a lot of help. It’s rewarding for a lot of people. I certainly have bigger goals, but winning my first PGA Tour event, I can check that off the list and keep looking forward,” Kizzire said.
Kizzire graduated from Auburn in 2008 with a degree in business and played three seasons for the Tigers, culminating in a win at the SEC Championships in 2007. He had a team-high and career best 13 sub-par rounds that season and finished that year with four top-10 finishes.
“Auburn was great to me. I love Auburn, I’m a big Auburn fan, and the Auburn golf program is continuing to get better,” Kizzire said. “I’m friends with guys that are on the team or are on Tours that were on the team. The Auburn Family is making a presence on the PGA Tour and I’m looking forward to seeing more young guys coming out of Auburn and joining us out here.”