By Jeremy Harness
NAPA – After sinking his par putt at the 18th on Sunday, Sang-Moon Bae’s manager tried to spray him with champagne, only to have his client dodge the shooting suds.
Bae didn’t exactly run away from the competition and wasn’t the birdie machine that he was the day before, but he did just enough on Sunday to win the Frys.com Open. He held on for pars for the last four holes and, with a final round of 73, finished 15 under par and two strokes ahead of a hard-charging Steven Bowditch, who had played the back nine four under and simply ran out of holes.
With the victory, Bae takes the initial lead in the FedEx Cup standings with 500 points while extending his exempt status on the PGA Tour through the 2015-16 season. In addition to this being the 28-year-old’s first win since the Byron Nelson, but it was also his first top-10 finish since then as well.
He played the front nine one under, but he started feeling the heat on the back nine, as he made only one birdie against three bogeys down the stretch. He admitted that the nerves, which were non-existent throughout the first three rounds, started to kick in as the end got closer.
“I think I was a little nervous, had (lost) a little focus, too,” Bae said. “I didn’t want to look at the scoreboard, but I did. I looked a lot. That’s why I made a lot of bogeys.”
It was his second win on the PGA Tour, the first coming in the 2013 Byron Nelson Championship, which he also won by two strokes.
“I think my swing was really, really good this week, so that’s why I played good this week,” Bae said. “My confidence level is much higher than last season.”
Meanwhile, his playing partner, Zac Blair, could not generate the kind of momentum it needed to make a serious run at Bae and had a round of 74. He was continually faced with long, low-percentage birdie putts and had to work very hard for the pars that he was able to salvage, which makes it impossible to win in those circumstances.
The 24-year-old started with two bogeys on the first three holes but battled throughout, but he was visibly frustrated towards the middle of the round, particularly at the par-five ninth hole that saw his third shot – a chip from 10 yards off the green – had no bite and rolled 10 feet past the hole.
Blair ended up missing the putt and settled for a par, and from that point, he could not make putts when he really needed to. He did have an encouraging finish, however, as he was able to get up and down from the greenside bunker for a birdie to finish 10-under and a tie for 12th
Bowditch, on the other hand, started the day eight strokes off the lead and appeared to play considerably looser, particularly on the back nine.
After a birdie followed by a bogey to close the front side, he went on a tear on the back, starting with a birdie at the 12th and then at the 14th. He then put even more pressure on at the par-five 16th, as he reached the green in two before rolling in a 34-footer for an eagle.
He then birdied the 18th for a 67 to finish the tournament at 13-under, but since he was seven groups ahead of Bae, all he could do was wait anxiously for Bae to make a big mistake.
That never came, and Bae, although he didn’t clearly play his best, limped to the finish line.
“The first (tour victory) was hard, but the second one was more difficult,” Bae said. “But now that I’ve got the second one, I think the third and fourth will come easy since I have the confidence.”