Sepp Straka flirted with golf’s magic number Sunday afternoon.
For 14 holes, the 30-year-old from Austria was invincible, with nine birdies and an eagle to turn a four-shot deficit into a five-shot lead.
Straka needed just one birdie over his final four holes to shoot 59, a score only shot or bettered 12 times on the PGA Tour.
The 59 didn’t materialize, but Straka did enough to record the biggest comeback victory in John Deere Classic history at TPC Deere Run.
“As fun as the 59 would be, I think winning the golf tournament is always more fun,” said Straka, who pocketed $1,332,000 for his second win on Tour and vaulted to No. 27 in the Official World Golf Rankings.
Straka was in 133rd place after a first-round 73. He rebounded with 63, 65 and 62 to finish at 21-under par, two strokes clear of Brendon Todd and Alex Smalley.
It marked the lowest first-round position of a Tour winner on record since 1983.
“I didn’t think I would be sitting here on Thursday after the round,” Straka said. “Just found some magic and then started hitting the ball really well, which I did on Thursday too, but really started making some putts.
“You’ve got to get the putter hot. Thankfully, it stayed hot.”
Straka missed a 9-foot birdie putt at the par-5 17th that would have put him at 12 under for the day. It was the first time in the last eight rounds at Deere Run that Straka didn’t birdie the hole.
“Hit a good putt but misread it a little bit,” he said.
Straka still had a chance for 59 when he was in the middle of the fairway at the par-4 18th, which played as the second most difficult hole during the week.
However, Straka’s 8-iron from 183 yards plopped into the water. It led to a double bogey and suddenly his lead dwindled to two strokes.
“We had picked out a good number, and I think number-wise I executed,” Straka said. “I hit the ball really solid, but I just pulled it way left of my target.
“Once it started going left with the wind off the right, it was never going to come back.”
After signing his scorecard, Straka had to wait to see if it would be enough. He watched on the television in the clubhouse and then went to the driving range to stay loose as Todd and Smalley played the final six holes.
Neither one could catch him.
Todd had his first three-putt in 131 holes at the par-3 16th that derailed his chances. Smalley failed to birdie the par-5 17th.
“It’s very stressful because at that point it’s out of your hands,” Straka said. “When you are on the course, obviously you’re really nervous, but you have control of the situation. When you are just sitting there, you kind of feel helpless.
“Thankfully, we didn’t need that playoff.”
The 62 was the lowest final round by a winner in JDC history. His 28 on the opening nine matched a tournament record by Fuzzy Zoeller (1976), Jeff Sluman (1983), Zach Johnson (2006), Kent Jones (2006) and Paul Goydos (2010).
His torrid start was a result of precision with the irons and a hot putter. Straka made a 20-footer for eagle at the par-5 second, buried a 29-foot birdie putt at the par-3 seventh and then dropped in a 40-foot bomb at the par-4 ninth for birdie.
Despite not making a birdie at the par-5 10th, Straka had birdies at 11, 12, 13 and 14.
“The putting was just phenomenal,” Straka said. “I was reading the greens really well. There were some really tough putts that I put a good read on and was just locked in on my speed and my line.”
It was the second consecutive year the tournament winner stayed at an Airbnb in west Geneseo. Straka was in a house with J.T. Poston (2022 winner), Denny McCarthy, Greyson Sigg, Chris Kirk and Patton Kizzire.
Straka admitted he’d probably have to flip the bill with his win.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “They’re not letting me off the hook there.
“I hope J.T. went ahead and renewed (for next year) before this.”
Born in Austria, Straka moved to the States as a teenager. He is the second Georgia product in the last decade to win the JDC, joining 2014 champion Brian Harman.
“Just a great guy, good personality and always happy for those around him,” Todd said. “He is a heck of a ball-striker, and he has worked hard on his short game the last few years with his coaches. It’s really starting to show with the level of golf he has played the last two years.
“When he gets in contention, he is lights-out. He is not scared to win.”
Now, Straka’s name will be floated around for a possible spot on the European Ryder Cup team this fall in Rome.
“September is a few months away, and I’m glad my game is in good shape,” Straka said. “Hopefully, I can make a push for that.”
Regardless, he is quickly ascending on the Tour. In addition to his win at the Honda Classic last year, Straka lost in a playoff to Will Zalatoris at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, a playoff event.
“This is all just a big dream come true,” Straka said. “I never really had a whole lot of confidence in myself growing up.
“Never would have even dreamt of playing here, let alone winning twice on the PGA Tour.”