The drama in Newburgh, Ind., was multifold on the rainy final day of the Korn Ferry Tour Championship at Victoria National Golf Club, and like the chaos that rears its head each year at the PGA Tour's regular-season finale, the Wyndham Championship, there was a lot more to play for than just another tournament victory.
The first thing to understand is that 25 players—known, literally, as "The 25"—already earned their PGA Tour cards with their regular-season performance on the Korn Ferry Tour. They're still playing in the three-event KFT Finals series that culminated Sunday, but exist in their own separate category, hoping perhaps to improve their status with a strong finish. Or, as in the case of tournament champion Justin Suh, win the series outright, become fully exempt on the PGA Tour and earn a spot in the Players Championship and—new for this year—the U.S. Open. Suh's final score of 21-under 267 put him two shots ahead of Austin Eckroat and removed a significant amount of stress for his rookie season on the PGA Tour.
"We've been close so many times throughout the season," said Suh, a member of the same graduating class as Viktor Hovland, Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff, after earning his first professional victory, "and it just proved to myself that I could win."
In some sense, though, Suh and the rest of "The 25" had the least to play for at the KFT Championship. Pushing them aside, everyone else is vying for 25 more PGA Tour cards. That included the players who finished 26th-75th on the KFT regular-season points, and the 75 PGA Tour players between Nos. 126 and 200 on the FedEx Cup list who are getting a second chance to earn full status for 2022-23. Considering that a future on the PGA Tour is at stake—and a guaranteed $500,000 thanks to the tour's new Earnings Assurance Program—many consider the KFT Championship to be the most nervous weekend in golf.
Eric Cole was one player who handled that stress better than almost all others. The 34-year-old is something of a mini-tour legend, having plied his trade for 13 years and accumulated around 50 wins. He nearly broke through to the PGA Tour last season, and was solid enough this year on the KFT to finish in 39th place on the regular-season points list. After two pedestrian Sundays in the first two Finals events, though, Cole came into the KFT Championship in 44th place. Three straight rounds of 68 propelled him well inside the top 25, and on Sunday, a bogey-free round finished the job; he ended at 18 under, T-3 for the tournament, and played his way inside the bubble and onto the PGA Tour.
"Mini-tour golf is not a fun place to be," said Cole afterward, reflecting on his journey. "There's been a ton of doubt in there."
But when asked if he had anything to say to the family who supported him along the way, the answer was simple: "I'm going to the PGA Tour."
Kyle Westmoreland finished the day with a 72, six under for the tournament, and even for an Air Force veteran, what came next was enough to make him sweat. In 2019, Golf Digest's Joel Beall wrote about Westmoreland's journey; how he was one of the best golfers in the Air Force Academy's history, how he had to put his career on hold for a five-year service commitment (spent in the U.S., but with limited time to keep his game sharp) and how he came out in 2019 and Monday qualified for several KFT events. He's a bomber (no pun intended), once averaging 341 yards off the tee for a tournament, and his career took a major leap forward when he finished T-19 at Korn Ferry Tour Q School in 2021. He had an up-and-down season on the KFT in 2022, ultimately finishing 60th on the points list with a pair of top-10s but plenty of missed cuts. A T-9 at last week's Nationwide Children's Hospital Championship, however, elevated him to 15th place on the Finals points list heading into the Tour Championship. With a T-52 finish on Sunday that number dropped dangerously close to the very edge of the abyss while he waited to see his fate. When all rounds were concluded, he had clung on to the 25th position, securing the last PGA Tour card for next season.
"I don't drink," he said, when he learned that he'd made it. "But I need a beer."
Other longshots, like Vanderbilt alum John Augenstein, saw their Cinderella runs come to a less happy conclusion. Augenstein, runner-up at the 2019 U.S. Amateur, struggled mightily this season, at one point missing seven straight cuts, and at No. 136 on the KFT, he wasn't even qualified for the Finals series. However, he had finished sixth at the Fortinet Championship last fall, accumulating enough non-member points on the PGA Tour to make it anyway. A 70-68-66 start this week saw him briefly rise inside the top 25, but with just 24 hours separating him from an improbable PGA Tour card, his final-round 73 brought the dream to an end.
Along with the tension, Sunday at the KFT Championship can be incredibly volatile, with many players who started the week inside the top 25 falling out. This week, the unlucky players whose bubbles burst were Hurly Long, Patrick Fishburn, Satoshi Kodaira, Sean O'Hair, Norman Xiong, William McGirt, Seung-Yul Noh, Chris Gotterup and Grayson Murray. Compare that to the Wyndham Championship, where it's incredibly rare to see five players fall out of the top 125 (there were two this year), and it's a great measure of how temperamental and brutal this tournament truly is.
There's a flip side to that, though: For every player who falls, another takes his place. The players who fought back inside the bubble in Indiana included Eckroat (who finished solo second at 19 under with one of the week's clutchest performances), tour veteran Ryan Armour (who posted a scorching final-round 65), Sam Stevens, Cole, Brent Grant, Tano Goya and Nicolas Echavarria, all of whom benefited from strong weeks and the topsy-turvy nature of the final Finals event. Echavarria, for his troubles, got a friendly beer bath:
Some familiar names, like Armour, Austin Cook, Henrik Norlander, Ben Martin, Brice Garnett and Brian Stuard earned PGA Tour cards through the KFT finals. A few played their way into the top 25, while others, like Stuard, missed the cut this week and were forced to hold on and pray.
Others, like Noh, O'Hair, Aaron Baddeley, Camilo Villegas, Grayson Murray, Sung Kang, Min Woo Lee, Kiradech Aphibarnrat (who qualified for the Final series based on a top-15 finish at the Wyndham after a difficult season), Kevin Chappell and Wesley Bryan were left on the outside looking in.
"For me, my back is against the wall, so I don’t have anything to lose anymore," Aphibarnrat had said earlier in the week, when he was T-2 after 36 holes before finishing T-63 with a 81-73 weekend. "The tough and difficult thing for me is to be the only Thai player on tour. I don’t have any Thai friends, so we keep speaking English, not in my language. To be honest, I feel a little bit lonely and homesick sometimes. My family is not here … one day, I hope to have some friends on tour.”
For him, like so many others fighting to save their PGA Tour lives, the KFT Championship can be a cruel mistress. Then again, the tension also makes for some spectacular moments. Grant, facing a birdie putt that for all he knew might be the difference between making the PGA Tour or staying on the KFT another season, showed just how much it can mean when you rise to the occasion when the nerves are off the charts:
And once more, in slow motion, if only because nothing else during this mercurial week of golf felt anything less than hyper-speed: