It's not how you start, but rather how you finish.
Lee Hodges took that to heart Sunday in the final round of the WinCo Foods Portland Open at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains, birdying the final hole en route to an even-par 71, an 11-under 273 total and his first victory on the Korn Ferry Tour.
"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. It's special. You look back on it and you see how hard you fought and it's pretty cool."
Hodges finished two shots clear of four players, including playing partner and third round co-leader Paul Barjon, who fought through a roller coaster of a round that included five birdies, three bogeys and two double bogeys on his way to a 2-over-par 73.
Despite falling short in an effort to earn his first Korn Ferry Tour victory, the Frenchman's finish of tied for second place earned him an exemption into next month's U.S. Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in New York — a nice consolation prize for an otherwise disappointing Sunday.
"My goal at the beginning of the week was that U.S. Open spot," said Barjon. "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."
Hodges started his day with a bogey at the opening hole, but followed it up with a birdie at the par-3 second. After a bogey at the ninth led to a 1-over par 37 on the front nine, the Alabama native birdied the 11th hole to separate himself by two from the field. But after a surprising bogey at the par-4 14th, as the result of his approach shot bounding into the hazard over the green, the lead was just one and the pressure was mounting for the home stretch.
"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."
Barjon's par at the 14th hole got him within one of Hodges, but a bogey at the par-4 16th and a narrow birdie miss from 12 feet at the 17th hole ended his title hopes.
Hodges' final hole birdie was followed by a celebratory yell and an exuberant hug with his caddie, but it was what it ultimately meant to everyone who's helped the 25-year-old along the way that nearly brought him to tears in its wake.
"Everybody was pretty emotional when I called them back home," reflected Hodges. "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."
With his win, Hodges earned a check for $144,000 and an exemption into next month's U.S. Open.
Joining Barjon in a tie for second place were David Lipsky who carded a final round 65, Carl Yuan (66), and Chad Ramey (66).
Ollie Schniederjans posted the day's lowest round, closing with a 7-under par 64.
Tournament a success
Despite the complications stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, Jeff Sanders, Sportfive executive vice president of golf events, was pleased with the event and his team's work to make it all happen.
"We started this week with a goal in mind to keep everybody safe and healthy," he said. "That was really our No. 1 priority, and I'm really proud of the team because we haven't had any issues this week of any kind as it relates to safety concerns. And, so from that standpoint, it's been very successful."
Sanders' approach of "food, wine, music and golf" has been a hit in recent years at Sportfive run events like the PGA Tour's Safeway Classic and American Express event at PGA West, along with the Korn Ferry Tour's Albertson's Boise Open and here in Portland. But with restrictions in place for safety reasons, the veteran of the golf business and his staff were forced to get creative — in a very short period of time.
"Everything was really rocking and rolling, and then, boom, COVID-19 hits," Sanders said. "We had hospitality suites booked up, had a full pro-am, we had our charities selling tickets and keeping the money, then we had to completely go another direction. It's taken an enormous amount of time, but I've got to tell you, I'm really proud of the team."
And what does the future hold for the event here in the Portland area? More of the same, per Sanders — kind of.
"Things are going well, we're just trying to get through this one," Sanders said. "It looks very positive for the future here and we're looking forward to it."
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