KORN FERRY TOUR FINALS
Whose lives changed at Korn Ferry Tour Championship
September 08, 2022
By Kevin Prise , PGATOUR.COM
- September 08, 2022
- Oklahoma State teammates Austin Eckroat and Sam Stevens played together in the final round at Victoria National and earned TOUR cards. (James Gilbert/PGA TOUR)
Sam Stevens is a pro’s pro.
His dad Charlie played professional golf and made Korn Ferry Tour appearances in the 1990s, and his grandpa Johnny played the PGA TOUR in the 1960s.
Stevens rose the ranks as a junior golfer in Kansas and then at Oklahoma State, where as a senior he battled freshman Austin Eckroat for the No. 5 spot on the team. He competed on PGA TOUR Latinoamérica and the All Pro Tour before earning Korn Ferry Tour membership for 2022. He qualified for the Korn Ferry Tour Finals and entered the final round of the Korn Ferry Tour Championship presented by United Leasing & Finance positioned to earn his first PGA TOUR card with a strong finish at Victoria National GC.
His playing partner Sunday in southern Indiana? Eckroat, who finished No. 3 on the inaugural PGA TOUR University Ranking in 2021 and took advantage of conditional status this season, at one point recording 33 consecutive rounds of par or better, to gain Finals access.
Stevens and Eckroat were admittedly rivals in their collegiate days in Stillwater, jockeying for position on the lineup. Sunday, though, the two pushed each other forward in the Korn Ferry Tour’s ultimate pressure cooker. With trouble at every turn at Victoria National, Eckroat carded a final-round 68 to finish solo second; Stevens carded 71 to finish T12.
Eckroat moved from 64th to No. 3 on the Korn Ferry Tour Finals Eligibility Points List; Stevens jumped from T36 to No. 21. They’ll play the 2022-23 PGA TOUR as rookies via The Finals 25.
Stevens carries a steady confidence about him; after a third-round 62 at Victoria National to move into serious contention for a TOUR card, he alluded to the magnitude of working toward a PGA TOUR card, yet seemed to downplay it.
“If I play good, I play bad, it really won’t matter that much,” Stevens said Saturday. “Hopefully I play well, and I’ll definitely try my hardest, that’s for sure.”
But then Sunday came around. Stevens’ wife Kelsey made a surprise road trip from Kansas to attend the final round in Indiana. And the five-year pro rebounded from a double bogey on the 17th hole Sunday with a closing par to earn his first TOUR card with a stroke to spare.
As the 26-year-old reflected on what it meant to be a PGA TOUR member – Eckroat smiling and looking on, waiting to join for a dual interview – the wall came down.
Stevens thought back to low points on mini-tours in the early stages of his five-year pro career. After each competitive round, he would take notes about the highs and lows of each round and the tournament at large.
He would always end the note with a prediction.
“I want to play the TOUR,” Stevens remembered, tears welling in his eyes. “I want to be on the TOUR.
“I wrote a note this morning, said, ‘I want to be on the TOUR.’ It’s cool. I’m there.”
Turns out, it mattered plenty.
The 2022 Korn Ferry Tour Finals marked the ninth and final iteration of The Finals 25 points race, bringing the era to a fittingly frantic conclusion on Sunday afternoon in southern Indiana. The Finals 25 era, which commenced in 2013 and awarded 450 total PGA TOUR cards (some repeat card-earners), was defined by remarkable volatility down the stretch on the final day of the Korn Ferry Tour Championship.
The Finals series was originally conceived as four events; the format was shortened to three events for the last three Finals iterations. Entering this year’s Korn Ferry Tour Championship, only eight players had crossed the fail-safe threshold (210 points) to cement a TOUR card via The Finals 25. Seventeen spots were up for grabs.
A rainy Sunday morning at Victoria National brought a delay of 3 hours, 3 minutes. Dark skies eventually gave way to a seemingly serene afternoon, but the tension suggested otherwise. As the action unfolded down the stretch, the all-important No. 25 position bounced around minute-by-minute.
Among the early finishers, the central figure of drama was Kyle Westmoreland. The 30-year-old Houston native spent five-and-a-half years on active duty in the Air Force and turned to full-time professional golf upon his discharge in summer 2019, even Monday qualifying for the Utah Championship presented by Zions Bank while on terminal leave before discharge.
Westmoreland made a closing birdie for a final-round 72 and 6-under total; he was then projected between No. 23 and No. 26 at various points throughout the tense final couple hours. He showered. He paced. He conferred with Korn Ferry Tour staffers on the various scenarios in play – involving characters like Nicolas Echavarria, Tano Goya, Sam Stevens, Eric Cole and Carson Young, all striving for their first TOUR card, and veteran Joey Garber.
“Word to the wise,” Westmoreland reflected later. “Don’t be on the bubble … I think I lost years of my life. I think I’ve lost my hair.”
Several others joined Eckroat and Stevens in finishing the week strong to cement their first TOUR cards.
Cole, 34, carded a final-round 68 to finish T3 and move from No. 44 to No. 7 on The Finals 25. Echavarria stormed up the board with a closing 66 to finish T5, moving from 71st to No. 20 on The Finals 25. Tano Goya finished T5 to vault from 59th to 19th; Brent Grant finished solo 11th to jump from 29th to 15th. After entering the week squarely on the bubble at T25 on The Finals 25, Carson Young finished T12 and moved to a comfortable No. 16.
Then there was Garber. The Michigan native, 31, earned his first TOUR card via the 2018 Korn Ferry Tour. He lost TOUR status after finishing No. 170 on the 2019 FedExCup, and he has played the last three years on the Korn Ferry Tour.
After finishing T34 at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship, Garber arrived at Victoria National at No. 47 on the Finals Eligibility Points List, likely needing a finish between 10th and 12th to move inside The Finals 25.
Garber made double bogey at the par-4 14th hole Sunday to fall back into the mid-to-high 20s on the leaderboard, his prospects looking bleak. But with his mom in attendance, the gritty Georgia Bulldog produced a rally for the ages, carding four consecutive closing birdies including a 7-footer at No. 18 to post 15-under total and gain an outside chance at a TOUR return.
As the likes of Stevens, Eckroat, Echavarria, Cole, Grant, Goya and Young held tough on Victoria National’s trouble-infested closing stretch, the scenario crystallized.
With a three-way T12 or better, Garber would edge Westmoreland for the final spot on The Finals 25. If Garber finished in a four-way T12 or worse, Westmoreland would attain the final TOUR card of The Finals 25 era.
Scorecards were signed. The outcome would be determined by leaderboard positioning.
For (my mom) to be here and see me perform today, it means the world,” reflected a teary-eyed Garber during the waiting period. “I hope that she enjoyed it as much as I did.”
Garber typically maintains an even keel during the ups and downs of professional golf, but his profound emotions spoke to the day’s long-lasting stakes.
As the numbers shook out, though, Garber became the final Mr. 26 of The Finals 25 era, by nearly the slimmest margin possible. He finished in a five-way T12, falling 4.5 points short of Westmoreland for the 25th spot.
“Joey Garber played so good down the stretch, such a great finish after making a double,” reflected Westmoreland. “If it went the other way, I would’ve been happy for him. But I’m happy to be on this side of it.”
Justin Suh won the tournament proper, finishing 21 under for a two-stroke victory over Eckroat. The University of Southern California alum earned his first professional victory and moved to No. 1 on the season-long standings (he also earned the most points across the three-event Finals).
Suh swept both points races, gaining fully exempt 2022-23 TOUR status and exemptions into next year’s U.S. Open and THE PLAYERS Championship.
It’s a monumental achievement, and Suh embraced it, but the 25-year-old was more excited to join the TOUR card ceremony, which took place shortly after the trophy presentation on the 18th green at Victoria National. It’s where he would join his peers in celebrating the accomplishment of reaching the PGA TOUR – some as rookies, some as returners.
“Your career's on the line,” Suh said prior to the final round in Indiana. “It's a big jump to go from the Korn Ferry to the PGA TOUR. I mean, this is as pressure as it gets. I met a few guys last year who had to come back down and they've said, like, they don't really get nervous on the PGA TOUR, but like these last two weeks and this week, it's probably the most nerves they've felt. It's a very exciting week.”
Hence the tears flowed Sunday evening, along with well-deserved libations.
“I don’t drink,” Westmoreland quipped, “but I need a beer.”
Kyle Westmoreland is the first U.S. Air Force Academy graduate to earn a @PGATOUR card.— Korn Ferry Tour (@KornFerryTour) September 4, 2022
He served for five years as a captain in the Air Force after graduation before returning to competitive golf. pic.twitter.com/3Jau6KvRCr
What does #TOURBound mean? Carson Young was moved to tears in his Golf Channel interview, reflecting on mini-tour struggles and doubts of whether pushing forward in professional golf was the best thing for his family. Last summer, he competed on PGA TOUR Canada with just one top-10 in eight starts. Now he’s booking travel for next week's TOUR season-opening Fortinet Championship.
“After Canada, if I didn’t make it through Q-School to get on the Korn Ferry Tour, I was going to quit golf,” Young said. “So to make it through that, and then in one year make it to the PGA TOUR is … I don’t even know. It’s unreal. I can’t even think to believe that is what was going to happen, after a year ago today.”
What does #TOURBound mean? Eric Cole had developed a reputation as a mini-tour legend, with 54 wins on the Minor League Golf Tour, but Q-School long proved an insurmountable hurdle. Cole, the son of professional golfers Laura Baugh and Bobby Cole, pursued outside work at times to make ends meet – caddying, giving lessons and even selling time-share housing units – but could never bring himself to let the ultimate dream go by the wayside.
After signing his scorecard Sunday, a TOUR card imminent, Cole thought back on his 13-year professional journey. He said that in his early years, he thought he could succeed in this game alone. Time adjusted that perspective.
“Starting out, I had this feeling I could do it myself, and I had this realization that I needed to rely on the people around me and have that support,” Cole said. “And I think that really made a big difference as far as believing in yourself. When you have my girlfriend, my family, my friends all saying I could do it, that’s something that’s really valuable that I didn’t really realize early in my career.
“You hear people talk about your team, and stuff like that, and I don’t really have a team, but I have those people in my ear telling me you can do it. You hear that enough, and you start to believe it a little bit.”
What does #TOURBound mean? Brent Grant drained a 40-footer for birdie at the 72nd hole, punctuated with a resounding fist pump and a hearty scream.
The Hawaii native, 26, had missed six of seven cuts to conclude the Regular Season, falling outside The 25 and needing to quickly reboot for the Finals. He retooled his game with coach Tony Greco during the weekend of the Pinnacle Bank Championship, made the cut in all three Finals events and has now cemented his first TOUR card.
After the third round in Indiana, Grant claimed that Sunday would be “just another round of golf.” Although he indeed strived to maintain that mentality, intrinsically he knew the situation carried a greater weight – and his reaction on the final hole of the season was proof positive.
He didn’t need to make the final putt; turns out he needed triple bogey or better to clinch his spot in The Finals 25. But the outpouring of the emotion signified the fulfillment of a dream.
“I’m just thankful for it,” Grant said. “Obviously it’s where I want to go. Nothing but gratitude; this Tour, these people have meant a lot to me, and these lessons I’ve learned are exactly what I’m going to take to the PGA TOUR.”
What does #TOURBound mean? Westmoreland was in no hurry to depart the 18th green after the card ceremony. He snapped photos, kibitzed with his soon-to-be TOUR peers, and took a selfie video with the #TOURBound light-up sign serving as the backdrop. He allowed the moment to linger – as did his parents and wife Erin.
What’s the best part, the Air Force Captain was asked?
“The best part is Harry Hall making faces behind you,” Westmoreland said with a smile. “My wife smiling and crying, and just the laugh mixture, my family behind them and all these happy guys behind me celebrating and having a good time, and enjoying being a part of the greatest TOUR in the world.
“It means a lot. It’s not who we are, but it’s what we do, and it’s at the highest level. So it means everything.”
"Go Air Force. Beat Army, Sink Navy."@Kyle_West_ played collegiality @AF_Golf and completed a five-year service commitment in the @USAirForce before pursuing professional golf.— Korn Ferry Tour (@KornFerryTour) September 5, 2022
He's the first Air Force Academy graduate to earn a @PGATOUR card. pic.twitter.com/eJz7j544iB