JOHNSON, Ark. – On a course where almost anything can and did happen, Anthony Paolucci strode to the 18th tee, took a deep breath, picked his target … and pushed his drive into the hazard. Oh, not again.
The flashback was unavoidable: Two weeks ago, at the FootJoy Invitational, Paolucci had a one-shot lead entering the final hole when he snap-hooked his drive into the trees and made double bogey to lose by one. This tee shot – and the subsequent confusion – elicited the same sort of sinking feeling, at least for a few minutes.
“It was in the back of my mind, what happened at FootJoy,” Paolucci said, “but it worked out good this time.”
Yep, even a three-shot lead was barely safe at Blessings Golf Club.
Despite limping home with a double bogey on the 72nd hole, Paolucci closed with an even-par 72 Friday to win the Rolex Tournament of Champions, the biggest victory of his career on what was arguably the most difficult venue ever to host an AJGA invitational. On a breathless day at Blessings, where the temperatures soared into the 90s and the tricky hole locations made it nearly impossible to go low, Paolucci was the only player to finish all four rounds under par, at 1-under 287, one stroke above his projected winning score at the beginning of the week. Patrick Rodgers, who last week won the Western Junior, finished two shots behind after a 75.
“It’s very sweet,” said Paolucci, 17. “I wanted to win, but I would have been happy with a top-5 finish, especially at this course. But I put myself in position to win and knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
Nothing came easy on the final hole. With a three-shot lead, Paolucci pulled driver on the 480-yard finishing hole and “made my worst swing of the week.” His go-to shot – a baby fade – started right and drifted even further right, the ball disappearing in the thick fescue.
A search party commenced, with players, volunteers and marshals all hunting for the lost Titleist. When it didn’t turn up, and the five minutes elapsed, Paolucci faced a 200-yard fourth shot to a back-left hole location, over a ridge, over a steep bunker. More pressing: Rodgers was in the middle of the fairway, staring at a possible birdie.
“I think I did very well to keep myself in the moment,” Paolucci said. “Hitting it in the hazard made me refocus and really connect everything that I needed to hit a good shot there.
“You gotta think the unthinkable there, and it just came out perfect.”
After Paolucci stuck his approach to 20 feet, Rodgers, about 10 yards closer, mis-hit his iron and the ball landed in the greenside bunker. His shot from the sand barely cleared the lip, and he wound up with bogey.
“I tried as hard as I could out there,” Rodgers said. “This course is brutal, especially where they had some of the pins. Anthony deserved to win today. He played an awesome round.”
Paolucci, who began the final round one shot back of Rodgers, seized the lead for the first time in the tournament with a birdie at the par-4 11th, which played as the toughest hole all week but on Friday was driveable from the front tees. He made bogey on the next hole, when he took two shots to get out of the trees on the right.
Rodgers made his only double bogey of the week at the most inopportune time, at the par-4 13th. His pulled his tee shot into the tall grass on the left, and he caught his recovery shot a little thin, the ball shooting through the fairway and into a hazard, from which he made double to fall three shots behind.
Needing at least a birdie on the par-5 16th, Rodgers attempted a risky shot out of a fairway bunker and landed his approach on a shaved mound above the hole. His birdie cut the deficit to two, but his approach to the 17th drifted right and led to a bogey, all but ending his chances.
“That one-shot lead wasn’t anything,” Rodgers said. “You can make that up in a heartbeat out here, and I just needed to shoot a good round today and didn’t.”
As for Paolucci, it’s his second invitational victory in the past two months, after his triumph at the Thunderbird International. In between was a heartbreaking finish at the FootJoy, the kind of defeat that could linger for weeks, maybe months, if he hadn’t put himself back in contention.
Was this a redemptive effort? Hardly.
“I made double on the last hole again,” Paolucci said, laughing. “This one turned out OK, though.”
• • •
Three years after her win at the U.S. Girls’ Junior, Kristen Park began to wonder if she’d ever win another tournament of that caliber. Losing a big lead on the back nine Friday certainly didn’t help.
It took a hole-in-one Thursday to jump-start her round. A chip-in birdie from behind the 17th green provided the spark this time.
Her lead dwindling as she came down the stretch, Park birdied her final two holes to win the AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions for her first invitational title, and her biggest victory since her breakthrough at the ’07 Girls’ Junior.
“This just kind of proves that I can still win tournaments like this,” Park said. “It felt like I was in a slump, and I just wanted to come out on top again.”
Park shot a 1-under 71 Friday to post a four-round total of 2-over 290, four shots ahead of U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links champion Emily Tubert.
Park birdied Nos. 10 and 11 to move to 1-under par for the tournament, 4 under on the day, but she nearly gave it all back with a triple-bogey 7 on the 14th. After a perfect tee shot, her approach plugged in the greenside bunker. She bladed her wedge over the green, into the thick grass, then chipped back over the green, pitched on and two-putted, a messy sequence that brought her closest pursuers back into contention.
Tubert, playing her third straight week of competition and hobbling around the course after developing four nasty blisters on the bottoms of her feet, rallied with a birdie on the 16th and an approach to 5 feet at No. 17. But Tubert missed her short birdie putt after Park chipped in. Park also hit a remarkable shot out of a fairway bunker on the 18th to set up a final birdie.
Tubert settled for solo second, her best-ever finish in an invitational.
“It was just her week,” Tubert said. “A couple of chip-ins, good putts, good shots. I missed a lot of birdie putts the last two days, and I’ve played a lot of golf recently. It was a grind these last two rounds.”
Park also won the Under Armour/Hunter Mahan Invitational in April, her first AJGA victory since 2008.