A year ago at the WinCo Foods Portland Open presented by Kraft Heinz, Lee Hodges got up and down for birdie from just short of the 18th green to “keep his job.” He finished 73rd in the points standings, knowing the top 75 retain their Korn Ferry Tour status for the following year, when a par would have left him on the outside looking in.
On Sunday, Hodges again got up and down for birdie from just shy of the 18th, this time for his first Korn Ferry Tour victory and a spot in the 2020 U.S. Open.
“It was pretty emotional down the stretch, I just tried to keep it together,” said Hodges. “It has not sunk in yet. It probably won’t sink in today, maybe tomorrow. It’s special. You look back on it and you see how hard you fought and it’s pretty cool. I didn’t feel like I had my best game this week, obviously I played well, but I didn’t feel like I was clicking on all cylinders. To get a win while doing that, that’s special.”
The win is the biggest of Hodges’ young career after spending a year on the Mackenzie Tour – PGA TOUR Canada and two years on the Korn Ferry Tour. The 25-year-old had finished top-20 in five straight tournaments entering the week and finally broke through with an even-par 71 on Sunday for a two-stroke victory on the Witch Hollow Course at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club. Hodges began the week 15th on the Korn Ferry Tour points list but is projected to jump to third after his win. Most significantly, he jumped inside the top five to earn an exemption into the 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Hodges joined Will Zalatoris (1), Davis Riley (2), Taylor Pendrith (4) and Paul Barjon (5) as players to receive exemptions through their standing. Zalatoris, Riley and Pendrith were safely inside the top five when the week began, but Hodges and Barjon (started the week seventh) were forced to earn their exemption through strong play in Portland.
“It will be sweet to play in a major; it will be special,” said Hodges. “I’ve always admired the U.S. Open, the way you have to play out there, it’s proper golf. I think I play a lot of proper golf and I hope to go and play well.”
The University of Alabama alum got emotional when talking about his support system back home. He had to pause to call his fiancée, Savannah, and his dad before accepting the trophy.
“Everybody was pretty emotional when I called them back home,” reflected Hodges, who played collegiately for two years at UAB before transferring to the Crimson Tide. “Just super happy. This means a lot to a lot of people back home and a lot of people in north Alabama. It’s not just me, it’s everybody back home. I’m sure they’re celebrating a lot in north Alabama right now. We’re going to do some 12-ounce curls.”
It was far from smooth sailing for Hodges during his round. He opened with a bogey but followed it up with a 30-foot birdie at the second hole to recapture the lead. After a string of pars, Hodges bogeyed the ninth before getting back to even with a birdie at the par-5 11th. He entered the 14th hole with a two-stroke lead, but bombed his approach shot over the green and had to take a drop.
“I didn’t even know it at the time, but 14 was probably the biggest hole of my life,”
laughed Hodges. “I had 168 yards in and we thought it was straight into the wind. I hit an 8-iron just to make sure I didn’t go long and I just flushed it. It was the best swing I’ve made all day. I just rocketed it over the green and then hit a great chip…I told myself to just hit a solid stroke and get out of there with a bogey. It almost went in and it was nice to make a bogey there.”
With his lead narrowed to one stroke, Hodges parred the next three holes before a closing birdie to stretch the final margin to two strokes.
“It’s really nice to know that you can get it done when you have to,” said Hodges. “It creeps into your mind down the stretch that you have to hit these shots and when you do, it’s very rewarding. It was a very rewarding day.”
Four players finished in a tie for second: David Lipsky, Carl Yuan, Chad Ramey and Paul Barjon. It was the third runner-up finish of the year for Barjon, while it was the highest finish of Yuan’s career.
With the ascension into the top-five, Barjon will make his debut in a major championship at Winged Foot.
“My goal at the beginning of the week was that U.S. Open spot,” said Barjon, a Frenchman and Texas Christian University alum. “Obviously the goal every week is to win, but this week there was a little extra incentive. I didn’t know where I had to finish, but I figured top-10 and I would have a chance to jump a couple of guys.”