EL PASO, Texas – An improved wedge game is one reason Kevin Penner became an All-American last season, an honor that earned him an invitation to one of college golf’s top events, the Western Refining College All-America Golf Classic.
That same wedge game helped Penner clinch this year’s Western Refining and add his name to one of the most prestigious lists of champions in college golf. Penner hit gap wedge to 4 feet on the 16th hole Tuesday at El Paso Country Club to take a lead that he would not relinquish.
Penner’s pars on the final two holes allowed him to finish at 14-under 199 (65-66-68), one shot ahead of Arkansas’ Sebastian Cappelen, who followed a first-round 72 with scores of 65-63. The Western Refining was Penner’s fourth collegiate victory.
“It’s pretty cool to have my name up there with a lot of people who have won this tournament and have gone on to do great things on Tour,” Penner said. “Hopefully I can follow in their footsteps.”
Past champions of the Western Refining College All-America Golf Classic include Tiger Woods, Webb Simpson, Matt Kuchar, David Duval, Davis Love III, Scott Simpson and Jerry Pate.
Penner had to beat the event’s defending champion, Cory Whitsett, to earn the title. The pair started Tuesday’s final round tied for the lead. Whitsett, an Alabama junior, was trying to become just the second multiple winner of this event (Clemson’s Chris Patton, 1988-89). Penner built a three-shot lead after just three holes after making birdies at Nos. 2 and 3, but his victory was anything but easy.
Penner was two shots ahead after Whitsett’s bogey at the par-3 10th. They were tied three holes later, though, after Whitsett made short birdie putts at Nos. 11 and 13 and Penner missed three consecutive birdie putts inside 10 feet.
Whitsett took a one-shot lead at the par-4 15th after driving the green and two-putting from 20 feet. Penner failed to get up-and-down after his tee shot rolled through the green.
“I knew I was kind of in a little bit of trouble, but not really because there’s three holes to go and you could birdie all three,” Penner said. “I just wanted to hit the fairway and the green, so I hit 3-iron off the last three holes to make sure that I was in play. I gave myself perfect opportunities to make birdies.”
Penner hit the fairway and the green on all three closing holes, but made just one birdie. It was enough for him to win, though.
He re-took the lead after a two-shot swing on No. 16. Penner hit gap wedge to 4 feet and Whitsett failed to get up-and-down from the front of the green. Whitsett had to chip from the putting surface because the rough outside a bunker impeded his line to the hole.
Whitsett played the shot nearly perfectly, landing it atop a hill and allowing it to gently trickle down a slope and roll 4 feet past the hole. He missed the putt before Penner made his birdie. Whitsett three-putted the 17th, missing a 3-footer for par, to fall two off the pace.
Whitsett was uncertain about the line on Nos. 16 and 17, “and it showed in the stroke,” he said.
“I just didn’t do the things I needed to do to win,” Whitsett said. “Kevin played really well. He was in control of his golf ball and game. It was pretty stress-free. Mine was not so much. I had to make a lot of putts to hang in there early and stay in. It was just too much. I couldn’t hang.”
Penner had to hole a 3-foot par putt on No. 18 to clinch the one-shot victory over Cappelen, who made eight birdies, an eagle and two bogeys Tuesday.
Penner was playing this event for the first time after earning honorable-mention All-American in 2012. He won twice that season, at the Wyoming Desert Classic and Gene Miranda Falcon Invitational, then claimed last summer’s Sahalee Players Championship in his hometown of Sammamish, Wash., and made the Round of 16 of the Western Amateur. Penner has developed into a top-tier college player during the past year. He started this week at No. 27 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
He ended it by winning one of the most prestigious titles in college golf.