Harris English fended off Phil Mickelson and Scott Stallings to clinch his first PGA Tour victory at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. The 23-year-old University of Georgia alum has contended early in his still budding pro career and went through some standard growing pains in the past, but closed in style on Sunday in Memphis with birdies on two of his last three holes to secure the win by two shots.
Harris had a shaky start, with four bogeys on his first nine, including the last two, nos. 8 and 9, to trail Stallings, a two-time PGA Tour winner, by three shots when he made the turn. But Brian Smith, his veteran caddie, encouraged him to get after it and helped him regroup on the back nine.
“I really didn’t think I’d be in this seat right here coming off 9,” said English, who shot a final-round one-under 69. “I thought I kind of made some really dumb bogeys on eight, nine and kind of shot myself out of the tournament. But Smitty was saying, `Hey let’s go beat this back nine. Let’s get back under par for the tournament for the day, and let’s get after it.’ So it was almost pedal to the metal.”
Harris didn’t realize he had the lead until he looked at a scoreboard on no. 14 and was surprised when he saw his name at the very top. Stallings had just made double-bogey on 15, but rebounded with a birdie on the par-5 16th.
Harris rolled in a couple of clutch putts coming in. He left his eagle putt on the 16th about four feet short, but holed it for birdie to tie Stallings. Then, he made an 18-footer for birdie on no. 17, while Stallings bogeyed no. 18, which gave English a two-shot lead heading into the 72nd hole.
And Harris said it sure was nice to have that little cushion. “My hands were shaking over the last putt.” He two-putted for par like a veteran.
English, who went to high school in Tennessee, had a bunch of friends following him and cheering him on at TPC Southwind, which was comforting playing in the final group.
“I had probably 10 high school friends out there today,” he siad. “And I know that if I make a birdie or a bogey, they’re probably going to be the same and they’re rooting me on. I was just really relaxed out there today. Bogeyed eight and nine, which was tough. But I knew if I kept it together on the back nine, I could make a run at the thing.”
Unfortunately, English’s victory doesn’t get him into the U.S. Open, but he has already secured an invitation to his first Masters in 2014, so there’s a silver lining. He’s also exempt to the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the PGA Championship.
Best of the Rest: Phil Mickelson made a charge at the lead with a strong back nine that included three birdies on his five final holes. Remember how he felt shaken up and nervous because he didn’t play the week before the Masters due to a schedule change? Well, he feels ready for the U.S. Open now. “I’m really encouraged with the way I hit my irons,” he said. “Got to get the 3-wood in play a little bit more, although next week at Merion distance won’t be as critical as TPC Southwind. I’ll be able to hit higher and softer shots.”
Stay patient, Stallings: Scott Stallings has had a stellar couple of weeks with three straight top-five finishes. Look for him to secure his third-career Tour victory in the near future. He’s on a roll. And he’s a class act: “Harris has played great coming down the stretch,” Stallings said.
Horses for courses: Dustin Johnson, who won in Memphis last year, cruised to a quiet top-ten finish. DJ has battled with injuries the past few months, which forced him to withdraw from The Players Championship, the Wells Fargo Championship and the Byron Nelson Championship. He missed the cut at the Memorial Tournament.
OK, onward to the U.S. Open! I’ll leave you with this classic tune.