Getting into the lead in a PGA Tour event isn’t hard – just string together a couple of good rounds early in the week – but hanging on to that lead can be difficult, as San Bruno’s James Hahn and his Humana Challenge co-leader, Robert Castro, a second-year PGA Tour pro from Atlanta, discovered over the weekend in Palm Springs.
Hahn and Castro shared the 18-hole lead at the tournament, the first event in the PGA Tour’s California swing, with rookie Jason Kokrak after all three shot 9-under rounds of 63. Kokrak fell back on Day 2 when he could manage no better than a 3-under 69 – not a bad round, but not up to the pace that was being set by the frontrunners. Co-leaders Hahn and Castro each shot 67s for 36-hole totals of 130, maintaining their co-leader status by a single stroke.
Come Saturday – cut day in this three-course pro-am format tournament – things began to get more difficult. Hahn struggled to an even-par 72 on the Nicklaus Private Course at PGA West. Each birdie he managed to make was countered by a matching bogey, and he dropped back from T-1 to a multi-player tie for 19th. Castro managed a three-under par 69 in his third round, on the La Quinta Country Club course, but others in the field were going lower, most notably Knoxville, Tennessee resident Scott Stallings. A third-round 63, on top of rounds of 65 and 66 for a 54-hole total of 194, propelled Stallings to a five-stroke lead over Castro and four other golfers who were all tied at 199.
Sundays are paydays on the PGA Tour, the day when it either all comes together or all falls apart, and shoring up a weekend, or even a single round, that has started to unravel, is one of the most difficult things to do in tournament golf. On the final day of the Humana Challenge, when the remaining players were all gathered at the Palmer Private Course for the final lap, Roberto Castro found himself running on fumes, Scott Stallings lost traction at the last hole to fall away from the lead pack, and James Hahn found a second wind and made a surge from back in the field.
On a day when the top 46 scores in the field were under par, Roberto Castro’s even par round dropped him from a 5-way tie for second place to a 10-way tie for 37th. Scott Stallings stumbled at the par-4 fifth hole when a moment’s inattention over a 2-foot putt resulted in a bogey 5. He managed two more birdies in the tough stretch of holes from nine through thirteen, but couldn’t muster the confident play that had seen him go bogey-free for the first sixty holes of the tournament, giving those strokes back with bogeys at 16 and 18. The final bogey dropped him to -24 and out of the cluster of 25-unders that was developing at the top of the leaderboard.
San Bruno’s Hahn regrouped from the previous day’s disappointing play and flew back up the board with six birdies and two eagles on the day, posting a solid 10-under 62 – one of three 10-under rounds on the final day, and only five for the entire tournament. His final-round performance saw the former Cal golfer close out the day at 24 under, but while he was surging back from his Saturday slide, other players were making steady progress toward the top of the heap – he was destined to finish T-4, one stroke out a three-way playoff for the win.
David Lingmerth of Sweden, another rookie who, like Hahn, graduated from the Web.com Tour last year, also posted a 62 on the final day. Added to his rounds of 68, 64, and 69 from the previous three days, he toted up a 72-hole tally of 25-under, a score that would have won this tournament by a stroke last year. Coming up behind Lingmerth were a couple of experienced players who are no strangers to the “W” column, Brian Gay and Charles Howell III. Stair-stepping their way up the leaderboard as the tournament progressed, the pair had scored 67-66-67 and 67-65-67, respectively, coming into Sunday. They stepped up with rounds of 63 and 64 in the final round to join Lingmerth in a playoff at 25-under.
Lingmerth fell away with a double-bogey after splashing his tee shot at the first playoff hole, #18. Splitting the hole with pars, the remaining pair returned to the par-4 tenth hole for the second playoff hole. Brian Gay, who had birdied the hole during regulation play, stiffed his approach to eight feet, while Howell’s second shot found a greenside bunker. Splashing out to nine feet past the hole, Howell couldn’t get up and down for par, and Gay, with two putts standing between him and his fourth PGA Tour victory, cinched the deal in one.
Never a player known for being long off the tee, Florida’s Brain Gay put newfound length off the tee – ten to fifteen yards he gained thanks to recent work on revamping his swing with driver and fairway clubs – to good effect in the Southern California desert this weekend. Always accurate with his irons, the extra yardage gave him one to two clubs less into the par-5s and longer par-4s, playing to his strength and giving him the confidence to move steadily up the leaderboard to emerge on top.
As for James Hahn, the Tour rookie – a one-time day-trader, ad executive, and ladies’ shoe salesman at Nordstrom – has shown that he can hang tough in the big leagues, and rally back from a bad round. The confidence he has gained from this weekend’s performance will stand him in good stead as the season progresses, and none of his fans here in the Bay Area will be surprised to see him post more finishes near, or at, the top of the leaderboard.