Is Alex Cejka a grinder? Absolutely. But also inside the ropes.
When you consider the incomprehensible toil that he experienced as a nine-year-old fleeing his native Czechoslovakia en route to freedom he’d eventually find and embrace in Germany, how he emerged victorious in last year's Puerto Rico Open at Coco Beach was apt.
For starters, the tournament marked his 287th PGA TOUR start, a mammoth total for anyone capable of retaining the kind of form that yields it, but for a non-winner, it’s a mountain of scar tissue. Cejka was not-young-anymore 44 years of age at the time, too. The title was his first top 10 on the circuit in five years. He had finished inside the top 100 on the money list just once in his career, and barely at that in 2009 when he ranked 95th.
He led the tournament by one stroke after 36 holes. After a birdie on the sixth hole of his third round, he played his last 30 in 1-over to finish regulation at the same number in relation to par as he recorded at the midpoint, 7-under. But four others were also in on that mark. So, while he was fortunate to be in the playoff after a lackluster weekend, he’d still need to survive the first playoff on the PGA TOUR with at least five golfers in it in 10 years.
With a birdie on the first extra hole, Cejka ended the drought to finally reach another destination that may have seemed as out of reach as his first as a boy. He became the fifth first-time winner (and third consecutive) in the eight editions of the tournament. Playing its part to challenge him and the others in the field of 132, Coco Beach Golf & Country Club (same course, new name) played its toughest in the history of the event. The stock par 72 averaged 0.570 strokes over par last year. That was tougher than more notable par 72s such as Augusta National and TPC Sawgrass. But that’s what happens when the wind howls on the island. The opening-round scoring average was 74.008.
Only three golfers were under par in every round, including Jon Curran, who was among the also-rans in the playoff. Like so many before him, Cejka excelled tee-to-green and led the field in ball-striking. Even though Coco Beach can stretch 7,506 yards, that skillset will matter most again this week as strong winds will reveal who has the mettle. Rain cannot be ruled out at anytime during the tournament. Temperatures will peak in the low to mid-80s.
10. Dean Burmester: The 26-year-old South African is making his PGA TOUR debut. Sits 87th in OWGR. Six career wins. Runner-up in recent, lucrative Dimension Data Pro-Am.