In the modern American game, it has become fairly easy to sneak your way into the top 25 or top 30 in the Official World Golf Rankings without ever snatching any big victories. You can top-10 your way around various events, never threaten to win and elevate both your OWGR and your bank account. Jason Kokrak, who will be inside the OWGR top 25 on Monday, has done all of that over the last few years, but he's also done something that's much harder to accomplish: He has stood up to some of the best players in the world and won multiple times on a tour where winning once is astounding.
Following his win last fall at the CJ Cup, Kokrak did it again at the Charles Schwab Challenge on Sunday in the final pairing with Jordan Spieth. Kokrak's game was not impressive (we'll get to that), but he cobbled together an even-par 70 that got the job done for the second time this season (only Bryson DeChambeau and Stewart Cink can say the same in 2020-21).
To call the game between Spieth and Kokrak a pillow fight is an affront to pillow fights. They were five and four strokes ahead of the rest of the field, respectively, when they started their round. Data Golf gave the field a 4% chance of winning and either Spieth or Kokrak a 96% chance. Then they went out and did their best to bring everybody else back into it.
Kokrak went out in a wavy 35 but then gained separation from Spieth with a 4-4-4-2 start to his second nine holes. Just like last week's PGA Championship as far as Brooks Koepka was concerned, this Forth Worth, Texas, crowd was not rooting against a Kokrak win, but it certainly was not rooting in favor of it with its beloved son on the verge of a second win in his last five starts. One media member compared it to LeBron James trying to down Stephen Curry in the 2016 NBA Finals.
real 2016 Game 7 vibe in Fort Worth right now. Northeast Ohioan holding on against a heavily favored golden boy in Under Armour on his home turf.— Brendan Porath (@BrendanPorath) May 30, 2021
They both faded down the stretch. Kokrak bogeyed Nos. 15 and 16, and Spieth did his best to match him. Somehow, the three-time major winner stood on the 17th tee box down just a single stroke. A few minutes later, Spieth told CBS Sports on-course reporter Dottie Pepper that he had absolutely nothing, and the stats showed it.
Kokrak closed the door with a pair of 4s to win by two over Spieth, who hit his second shot into the water off to the left on the 18th hole. It was an ugly ending to an even uglier day. There's something to be said for big gaps after 54 holes, though. That those two were up a combined nine strokes on the rest of this strong field gave them the wiggle room to have an ugly day. If we flip around the 18-hole scores, and this is what they shoot on Thursday or Friday instead of Sunday, we're talking about what a great finish we had to the tournament.
All that to say this should not take away from Kokrak's victory, which has now put him into the Ryder Cup mix and really elevated his reputation as a strong PGA Tour player. Is he ever going to be a Spieth or Justin Thomas type of player? No, of course not. But like Jimmy Walker did in his late 30s a decade ago, Kokrak can start racking up wins and potentially even take down a major championship. If last fall's win at the CJ Cup was a glimpse of that, this was full validation.
Though he did not exactly make a name for himself with a dramatic, world-class Sunday performance for the win, Kokrak did something so few have done at his age (36) that's worthy of celebration. He took down a potentially all-time great on a course that golfer had absolutely owned, and he raised the stakes for himself in the process. Expectations for Kokrak are no longer as a top-10 machine on the tour but rather as somebody who can win at any time on any course against any player. Grade: A+
Here are the rest of our grades for the 2021 Charles Schwab Challenge.
Jordan Spieth (2nd): As referenced above, Spieth just didn't have it Sunday. He followed an incredible 63-66-66 start at Colonial with a 3-over 73 when it mattered the most. Spieth opened his fourth round with three bogeys over his first foul holes and registered two more over his last four without a birdie on the back nine. Still, he registers yet another top-five finish this year and remains the hottest golfer on the planet. Grade: A
Charley Hoffman (T3): This is a Charley Hoffman appreciation paragraph. While we were busy making jokes about how good he is during Round 1 at majors, he's been on a tear. Seven top-20 finishes in his last eight starts, including two top fives. Absolutely flushing the golf ball right now and trying to play his way into the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
"There's only one goal;," he said after shooting 65 on Sunday to get into the top five at Colonial. "I'm playing Muirfield [Village] next week, but hopefully this week was enough to get me inside the U.S. Open. Sitting just outside the World Ranking, near my hometown where I group playing Torrey Pines. I'm obviously trying to win golf events but getting in that U.S. Open is a key." Grade: A
Collin Morikawa (T14): Tossed away a top-10 finish with a bogey-par-bogey finish late, but he hit it so well all week. We say this about a lot of different golfers on the PGA Tour, but Morikawa might be the ultimate "if he putts, he wins" guy. He finished outside the top 50 in putting on the week, and his short game was not particularly good either, and he still easily finished in the top 20. He'll pick off so many wins over the course of his career with that formula. Grade: B
Erik Compton (T20): It was a tough Sunday for Compton, who was looking for either a top-15 finish to get into this tournament next year or a top-10 finish to also get into the Palmetto Championship at Congaree in two weeks from now. After receiving a sponsor invite this week, the two-time heart transplant recipient narrowly missed both with a 73 in the final round to fall from T6 to T20. Nevertheless, he did make his first cut on the PGA Tour since 2016, which should provide a nice bump as he heads back down to the Korn Ferry Tour. Grade: A
Justin Thomas (T40): J.T. had to work a bit more than normal to make the cut on Friday after a 72 in Round 1. He did not hit the ball particularly well, which is obviously unusual for him and breaks a long run of tremendous iron play. He closed with three bogeys in his last four holes on Sunday, otherwise he could have salvaged a decent spot on the leaderboard with something low on Sunday. He's struggled in first rounds over the last few months, carding a 73 at the Masters, a 75 at the PGA Championship and then a 2-over 72 here on Thursday. When guys like Spieth are shooting 63 on the first day, it's extraordinarily difficult to play your way back into the tournament. Grade: C