Straka gives up ToC lead after 87 at Blessings
JOHNSON, Ark. – Sam Straka signed his tournament away and moved on. He put his glove and some tees back into the side pocket of his golf bag, loosened his shirt and gave his mother, Mary, who had trailed him all day, a big, tight hug on a suffocating summer day.
Then he removed his sweat-soaked Nike cap and rubbed his eyes, as if trying to rouse himself from a five-hour night terror. That kind of day.
“I’m not really shocked,” Straka said. “Just disappointed. Bad start, and it went downhill from there. The wheels came loose.”
Straka, the 36-hole leader at the AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions, needed 87 strokes to get around Blessings Golf Club on Thursday. One birdie, eight pars, five bogeys, one double, three triples, and one dispiriting two-stroke penalty.
To his credit, though, Straka, 17, stood and politely answered every question, an unenviable task when every inquiry is some variation of How did a five-stroke lead turn into an eight-shot deficit?
And no, he didn’t have all the answers. His explanation: “I just started feeling tired and had a bad day. Hit the ball bad, let my concentration slip on almost every hole, and you just can’t do that on this golf course or you’re gonna start making big numbers. And that’s definitely what happened.”
Maybe it was the strain of playing 72 holes in three days. Maybe it was the pressure of leading an AJGA invitational for the first time. Maybe it was Blessings Golf Club, about a 10-mile trek if following the cart paths. Truth be told, it was probably all three. But that was little consolation on this day.
“I’ve had a couple bad days (like this),” Straka said. “I think everybody has. It just happens. Gotta deal with it, take the good with the bad.”
That he even held the lead after his front-nine debacle was a testament to both his skill and scrambling ability. A blocked tee shot and approach on the first hole signaled trouble, a “weird start” that wasn’t unlike the opening stretch to his sparkling second round. On Wednesday, he played the first four holes in 5-over par, but ran off eight birdies in a nine-hole stretch around the turn to shoot 66, which included an unfathomable 28 on the back nine, the more difficult side.
Thursday, with the stakes much higher, the lead much larger, Straka never turned it around. Never came close, really, save a big-breaking 30-footer that dropped for birdie on the par-3 10th.
Blessings figured to play decidedly tougher in Round 3, after tournament officials pushed back the tees – it played 7,313 yards – and a steady breeze dried out the greens. As it turns out, a 78 was all Straka would have needed to maintain his lead.
Witness to the soaring scores – in the same group, Shane Lebow shot 83 – Drew Czuchry, now solo third, could offer only this: “I knew the lead would come back a little bit ... but I didn’t think he’d shoot that.”
Ten shots out of the lead when he stepped to the first tee Thursday, Patrick Rodgers, the Western Junior champ, now leads the ToC. Anthony Paolucci, another accomplished player, is one shot back.
Straka, still searching for his first AJGA victory, is now eight strokes behind, a deficit that likely will prove insurmountable, even if the burden of expectation has been lifted. He assumed as much in the scoring tent Thursday, as he looked back at the electronic scoreboard and saw his name now on the second page.
“Just a bad day overall,” Straka said, picking up his golf bag and throwing it over his shoulder. “Just got to try to come back tomorrow.”