Higgo holds on for first PGA Tour victory

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South Africa’s newest sensation is also the PGA Tour’s newest champion, as 22-year-old Garrick Higgo managed to avoid a playoff and capture the title at the Palmetto Championship at Congaree on Sunday in South Carolina.

Making just his second start on Tour and his first in a regular-season event, the Johannesburg native became the first player win within his first two starts since 1988 (Jim Benepe won his Tour debut in the ’88 BMW Championship). The lefthanded Higgo finished at 11-under 273 (68-69-68-68) to edge a six pack of players at 10 under including Hudson Swafford, Doc Redman, Jhonattan Vegas, Tyrrell Hatton, Bo Van Pelt and Chesson Hadley, the 36- and 54-hole leader.

“I'm just proud of the way I hung in there,” said Higgo, who started the final round trailing Hadley by six strokes and overcame the largest deficit for a win since fellow lefty Bubba Watson won the 2018 Travelers Championship. “It was tough all the way from the start. Definitely didn't have my ‘A game’ in terms of off the tee, but I like that sometimes. I like not having to play perfect golf. I enjoy scrambling and making a couple putts, which I did, which was awesome.”

Higgo, already a three-time winner on the European Tour with two wins (Gran Canaria Lopesan Open, Canary Islands Championship) and two top 10s this season, made some notable putts over his final nine holes at Congaree including a 9-footer for eagle at 12 and a 23-footer for birdie at 14. But perhaps the most important was a 9-foot putt to save par at 17.

“I knew, if I didn't make that (putt at 17), I wasn't going to win,” said the World No. 54, who started the week at +4000 via PointsBet. “I knew that, and I think that you have to kind of be a little not with it if you don't know that. You can kind of get the sense, you can feel what's going on.

“There were scoreboards. At that point, I was looking at scoreboards. So I definitely knew, and I had a good feeling on that putt.”

The UNLV alum also had secret weapon: Fellow South African and golfing legend Gary Player has stepped into a mentoring role for Higgo, including daily phone calls during the PGA Championship where he finished T-64 as well as a pep talk before Higgo’s final round on Sunday.

“He phoned me this morning, actually, and he told me he's done it before quite a few times, the way he's won from six behind, seven behind,” recounted Higgo. “He just said don't think too much about what the other guys are doing, just kind of do your thing and stay up there, and you never know what could happen.”

Player posted his congratulations on social media Sunday, saying that watching Higgo win was “one of the most enjoyable things for me to witness in my career. He is without a doubt the most humble, well-mannered young man that you could wish to meet. Watch this space, big things to come!”

Higgo also benefitted from a late collapse by 33-year-old Hadley, who was chasing his first tour win since 2014. After opening with rounds of 65-66-68, Hadley was still leading by two shots after the 15th, but a wayward tee shot at 16 led to a bogey, then he failed to get up and down on 17 and 18, making bogey at both, and finished with a 4-over 75.

“I can only imagine what it looked like on TV because it looked freaking awful from my view,” said Hadley, who entered the week on a streak of five straight missed cuts and was a +20000 longshot according to PointsBet. “I mean, I could barely keep it on the planet. … Just got to keep after it. I just didn't have it today. It was bad and (I've) got to do better and I will.”

The win makes Higgo immediately eligible for PGA Tour membership through the 2022-23 season as well as for the 2021 FedExCup Playoffs. If he accepts the membership, he would move to No. 80 in the FedExCup standings.

“I mean, my dream's always been to play on the PGA Tour permanently, so at the moment, I'll focus on that, see if I can keep going,” said Higgo, who will tee it up at Torrey Pines next week in his first U.S. Open. “Obviously, I'll play on the PGA Tour for as long as I want, and hopefully I can play on here forever.”

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DJ signals return to form with T-10 finish

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, the favorite at +800 to start the week and making his first start since missing the cut at the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, made several runs at the leaderboard en route to a T-10 finish at Congaree. It was Johnson’s first top-10 finish in eight starts (his most recent top 10 being a T-8 at the Genesis Invitational in February).

After opening with a bogey-free, first-round 65, which marked his lowest first-round score since winning the 2020 Masters, Johnson stayed in contention over the next three rounds, signaling a return to form. However, the 36-year-old, 24-time Tour winner had some trouble closing over his final three rounds: Johnson made double at 18 in his second round to card a 68, but was still just two strokes behind 36-hole leader Hadley. In the third round, he finished bogey-bogey for a 2-over 73 and fell seven strokes behind Hadley at the 54-hole mark.

“I didn't feel like I played that bad,” Johnson said after finishing his weather-delayed third round on Sunday morning. “It was just, if I could get a bad break, I did. It felt like all day, every shot that I had was in-between clubs. It was just a weird round.

“I still feel like I'm swinging it well. I'm doing a lot of good things. Obviously, I would have liked to be a little bit closer to the lead, but who knows what can happen. I feel like I'm playing good enough to go out and shoot a really good score.”

Johnson made a run at the leaderboard late Sunday, coming within a shot of Hadley after birdies on 10, 12 and 13. But that door slammed shut when he made a triple-bogey at the par-4 16th -- his first three-putt in 141 holes -- and parred out for a 1-under 70 and 8-under 276 total, three shots behind eventual winner Higgo.

Koepka misses cut, stays positive ahead of U.S. Open

Brooks Koepka returned to action for the first time this week since his T-2 finish at the PGA Championship, but he shot 72-73 (3-over par) at Congaree to miss the cut by two strokes. The World No. 8 remained positive about both the state of his game and his knee. Koepka told media prior to his start at the Palmetto that his surgically repaired right knee felt strong and was “months and months ahead of schedule,” but afterward, the 31-year-old, eight-time PGA Tour winner admitted his focus simply was not sharp.

“My game's in good shape,” he said Friday after missing the cut. “I know my score doesn't reflect it. I like where it's at. I feel even better than where I was going into the PGA. I'm pretty pleased, pretty happy. Just get ready for next week. …

“I don't know how to really explain it. It's more of like I struggle with focus out here because my mind's already kind of going to next week and thinking about everything I need to do there. I mean, that's probably where I think some of the poor scoring comes from, just from lack of focus. But as far as commitment to the shot, striking it well, doing what I want with the ball, flighting it, I'm pretty pleased. I'm excited for next week, and hopefully it goes well.”

Up next: U.S. Open at Torrey Pines

The 121st edition of the U.S. Open Championship returns to its traditional June slot on the calendar as well as to the esteemed South Course at Torrey Pines in San Diego, Calif., for the first time since Tiger Woods’ victory in 2008.

Headlining the field is defending champion Bryson DeChambeau, who outlasted and overpowered the field at Winged Foot last September to earn his maiden major title and looks to becomes the first player since Brooks Koepka to defend his U.S. Open title (2017-18).

Perhaps generating the most buzz is one of the most unexpected frontrunners: San Diego native and recent PGA champion Phil Mickelson, who turns 51 on Wednesday and has a record six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open. Mickelson is looking to finally complete the career Grand Slam and will draw on his three regular-season Tour victories (and 31 previous starts) at Torrey Pines. In the 2008 U.S. Open, Michelson finished T-18, seven strokes behind Woods.

Patrick Reed, who won the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines this past January, is looking for his second major championship title and aims to join Ben Hogan, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only golfers to win a PGA Tour event and the U.S. Open on the same course in the same year.

World No. 3 Jon Rahm, who withdrew from the Memorial as the 54-hole leader after testing positive for COVID-19, will end his 10-day isolation period on Tuesday and is expected to play.

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