Australia’s Jason Day notched up his eighth PGA Tour victory with a win in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill on Sunday, March 20 – and he did it in a way which even Tiger Woods, with eight wins in the tournament, never matched – wire-to-wire. The win made a strong case for Aussie domination of the Florida swing of the PGA Tour, with three out of four tournaments falling to Australians.
2013 Master’s champion Adam Scott got off to to a scorching start in the Sunshine State with wins at the Honda Classic and the WGC Cadillac Championship. South African Charl Schwartzel, another former Master’s champ, broke the Aussie streak when he racked up a win at the next stop in the Florida Swing, the Valspar Championship. It was Schwartzel’s first PGA Tour win since the 2011 Master’s.
Day has finally been making good on the promise he showed earlier in his career with five wins in the 2015 season, including his first major, the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. Coming into this week he has also been seeking – and evidently taking – advice from Tiger Woods, who has a record eight wins at Bay Hill.
Three men were in a position to play spoiler to Day’s run in Sunday’s final: Henrik Stenson, who contended at last year’s API before stumbling over the last three holes and handing the win to the 2014 defending champion, Matt Every; Kevin Chappell, the Clovis, CA-born UCLA grad who would have collected his first winner’s check on the PGA Tour with a win at Bay Hill; and Troy Merritt, who was looking for a follow up to his first PGA Tour win, the 2015 Quicken Loans National.
Day got off to a hot start over the first two days, carding rounds of 67-65 to lead by a stroke over Stenson going into the weekend, with England’s Justin Rose a stroke behind the Swede. Both Day and Stenson cooled off on Saturday, dropping out of the 60s with rounds of 20-under par 70. Meanwhile Chappell and Merritt stayed hot, both carding 67s in the third round to move into a tie with Stenson for 2nd place going into the final round, one stroke back of Day. Rose slipped back another stroke with a 3rd-round 71.
Chappell, Stenson, and Merritt all challenged Day for the win over the final 18 holes. The young Aussie traded bogeys for birdies on the front nine – carding three of each to open with an even-par 36. Chappell was making modest gains with a 2-under 34 to open, and Stenson stayed in the running with 35. Merritt looked to have played himself out of contention with a 2-over 38 after carding two birdies and two double-bogeys. The Boise State grad righted the ship in a big way on the back nine, opening with five straight birdies to surge into a tie with Chappell at -16, at that point, while Day and Stenson lay a stroke back at -15.
The 18th hole claimed Merritt as a victim, though, when his second shot found the water short of the tucked back-right flag location, resulting in a double-bogey that dropped him to -14. Stenson again fell victim the the closing holes of the Bay Hill course on Sunday, as he did last year against Matt Every, finding the water short of the 16th green for bogey and a drop to what proved to be his final score to par, 14-under.
Chappell, playing with Stenson, striped a 202-yard shot to the 16th green, 30 feet right of the hole and two putted for birdie – only narrowly missing the eagle putt – to move into the lead at 17-under. Day, coming up behind Chappell and Stenson, answered with a birdie at the par-three 17th hole, dropping a 221-yard tee shot to within 12-1/2 feet of the flag and rolling in the birdie putt.
With the possibility of a playoff looming, Chappell, who had been fighting a cold all week, came to the 18th hole needing at least a par to be reasonably certain of a playoff against Day, but his 280-yard drive to the right rough put the issue in doubt. A bad lie in lush rough meant that he could do no better than advance the ball some 93 yards to the narrowing neck of the fairway leading to the green, and his approach shot checked up short, leaving a 25-foot putt for par. A nervous stroke at the ball left him 4-1/2 feet short, and the resulting bogey put the question of a playoff entirely in Jason Day’s hands.
Day’s tee shot at the 18th also sailed right, a bit further than Chappell’s had, even, but in a better lie. The Aussie stroked his second shot 193 yards into the left-rear greenside bunker. Day, who had been living on his short game throughout the tournament, put those skills on display again on the last hole, making a masterful sand shot that left him with 4 feet for par, and the win. Dropping the par putt into the hole with a firm stroke, he nailed down his eighth PGA Tour victory, the seventh in 21 starts.
Asked about that bunker shot after the round, given that Arnold Palmer was just a few feet away, sitting in a golf cart with an unimpeded view of the green, Day said, “I could not think of anything else other than trying to get that thing up and down. When it came out I knew that it was a good shot. I hit it great … it was exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to spin it too much, I didn’t want it to check. I wanted to make sure it landed on the green and ran down to the hole. (I was) more nervous over the putt than the bunker shot.”
The win moves Day to the second spot in the world rankings, passing Rory McIlroy, who ran hot and cold this week with rounds of 75-67-75-65–282 and a T-27 finish. Jordan Spieth, who didn’t play this week, still holds a sizeable lead in the world rankings over Day and McIlroy, the two closest contenders.
Kevin Chappell’s solo 2nd-place finish is his fourth career 2nd, and 13th top 10 finish. Among other NorCal pros in the field, Sacramento’s Spencer Levin finished T-68, and James Hahn, of Alameda, and former San Jose State golfer Mark Hubbard both missed the cut.
Another golfer from Chappell’s hometown of Clovis, amateur Bryson DeChambeau, finished T-27. DeChambeau won the 2015 USGA Amateur Championship as well as the NCAA individual title while playing for SMU, but was set adrift from college golf when recruiting violations in other sports caused the NCAA to levy sanctions against the school which included a ban on post-season play.
With the chance to defend his title taken away from him, DeChambeau left school and is playing in PGA Tour events on sponsor’s exemptions, retaining his amateur status until after the Masters, for which his USGA Amateur title earned him entry. A Masters entry is held in high regard – the 22-year-old left a payday of nearly $30,000 on the table this weekend by playing as an amateur.