By CHRISTOPHER POWERS
The Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship wound up being a three-man shootout in the final round in the Dominican Republic, each a former US PGA Tour winner trying to jumpstart a career stuck in neutral.
By day’s end, it was the most experienced of the trio, Graeme McDowell, who outpaced Chris Stroud and Mackenzie Hughes. The former US Open champion shot a closing 69 to finish with a 18-under 280 total and take the title by one stroke over his rivals.
The victory was the fourth of McDowell’s PGA Tour career, but his first since taking the title at the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in November 2015.
“This is big,” said the 39-year-old from Northern Ireland. “This is big for those who stood by me the past few years because it’s been a rough few years. It’s been a grind. My whole family, my wife and kids at home.”
McDowell started the day with a one-stroke advantage and looked determined not to let anybody catch him, making birdies on four of his first seven holes. But Stroud, a 12-year tour veteran with just one win to show for it, matched McDowell’s pace on the front side, then passed him with birdies on the 14th and 15th holes.
The turning point game on the par-3 17th. Stroud fanned his tee shot 10 metres right of the green while McDowell laced a 6-iron to seven feet. When Stroud couldn’t get up and down to save par, and McDowell rolled in his putt, the bogey-birdie exchange gave McDowell back the lead.
“I was standing on 16 green and I said to myself: ‘You’ve got to do something that’s tournament-winning,’” McDowell said, “and that shot to 17 was tournament-winning level.”
Ahead of McDowell and Stroud, Hughes was seven-under for his round to get to 18-under, but a poor approach on the 18th led to his first bogey of the day and cleared the way for the final group.
The jitters looked like they were getting to McDowell and Stroud as well on the 72nd hole. Both hit mediocre second shots on the par-4 home hole, but when Stroud three-putted from 60 feet, it allowed McDowell to also post a bogey yet still win by one.
No.257 in the world ranking entering the week, McDowell had been playing a hodgepodge schedule. While looking forward to competing in US Open in June at Pebble Beach, site of his 2010 triumph, the Major he desperately wants to get into is the Open Championship at Royal Portush in his home country. He still has work to do to qualify, but his game looks to be coming around to where the dream is no longer a long shot.