One day short of his 44th birthday, Michael Cooper celebrates his third Firecracker Open by posing with his two daughters, clad in Firecracker Tee Shirts and the Firecracker Open Trophy. (Click on any photo in this article to enlarge it then use your back button to return to the story)
Cooper started the day at nine under par, two shots behind Alex Levy who was at 11 under par. He made a double bogie on Muny's first hole and finished the front nine in 37, one over par, and stood at -8 for the tournament standing on number 10 tee box. Alex Levy, who shared the first round lead with 63 and claimed the second round lead with an -11 total, posted one under on the front nine and was in the lead at -12.
The golf gods shifted their attention from Levy to Cooper on number ten when Cooper drove the par four and two putted for birdie while Levy made a bogey. Levy was at -11 and Cooper was minus nine for the tournament.
As the back nine unfolded, Cooper went on a birdie streak. He birdied 12, 13, 14, and 15 and stood on number 16 tee at -13 for the tournament, tied with Levy. Cooper hit a tee shot down the right side, caught a tree but the ball fell straight down and finished in the light rough under the oak trees guarding the right side of 16. Levy's tee shot was also right but finished inside the cart path and slightly in the rough.
Levy faced a difficult second from about 160 with a poor lie and missed left into the trees guarding 17 tee box. However, the ball careened back into the area short of the green so he had a chance to get up and down for a four.
Cooper two putted for par and Levy failed to get up and down so after 16 Cooper was at -13 and Levy was minus 12.
Meanwhile the group ahead included Alex Ellis and Kody King. Both players had made substantial moves on the field and stood on the 18th tee box in contention. King was tied for the lead at -13 and Ellis was one back at -12. King suffered a poor tee shot and made a double bogey while Ellis made birdie and posted -13.
Back on 17 tee box, Cooper hit a seven iron left of the green and faced a difficult up and down from the edge of the cartpath. It required getting the ball up over the rise, through the rough, then stopping the ball on a downhill pin. A difficult proposition at best. Cooper elected to play a putter and managed to make a bogey, which is not a given from that position. Levy made a regulation par so headed to the 18th tee box, Cooper and Levy were one shot behind Ellis at -12.
On 18, both players hit tee shots green high to the right and faced difficult pitch shots to a back right pin. Click on the player's name to see the swing sequence of the tee shots hit on 18 by Cooper and Levy.
Both players faced difficult pitch shots from relatively difficult lies. Both players had the choice to run the ball through some rough or try and elevate it over the rough and stop it close to the hole. Both chose to elevate the shot. Some call it going air force instead of army. Some call it new school versus old school. This writer calls it having good nerves when it counts. It also shows these players had learned to use the bounce of their wedges to play difficult lies when it counts. They executed very well.
Levy played first and hit a pitch shot that barley carried the green and ran to 6-8 feet past the cup. Cooper played next and pitched it to about three feet on the same line as Levy. They both faced downhill putts with some break. Under pressure these are not the favorite putts of most players.
Now we are taling about pressure. Levy, who had led the tournament for two days and 15 holes, and was now one shot back from getting into a playoff, hit a good putt. But, the golf gods had continued to turn their face away from him. The putt lipped out and Levy's chance at the title was over. Cooper stroked his home and finished at -13, tied with Alex Ellis.
The playoff started on hole number 10, a short par four over water to a back left pin position. Cooper had the honors and chose to hit driver. Now, for a little background…. During regulation play Cooper drove the green the first round and made the putt for an eagle. In the second round, he started on number 10 and used an iron to lay up but then holed his second shot for his second eagle on the hole. In the final round, Cooper drove the green and narrowly missed an eagle, settling for a birdie. In deciding what club to hit in the playoff, he chose the driver and smashed the tee shot onto the green, hole high about 40 feet right of the hole.
The shot required making good contact from a poor lie so he could elevate the ball enough to bounce it off the side of the slope on the green's edge, let the ball trickle over the slope and stop it on the surface. It was virtually impossible. However, Ellis hit a good shot and it finished just off the back fringe.
Now, Cooper faced a 35-40 foot lag putt over a rise and down to the cup. He almost made the putt and recorded another birdie on hole number 10. Ellis missed his 20 foot birdie attempt from the fringe and just like that Cooper claimed his third Firecracker Open Title. It completed a comeback victory that saw Cooper post 30 on the back nine, which included a bogey on 17, and then a birdie on the playoff hole. A strong finish to say the least. He celebrated with a kiss from his wife Marjann.
Not many have won the Firecracker three times. Claude Wilde won in 1947,49 and 50 while Doug Nelle won in 1977, 78 and 80. Cooper joins this elite group elite group of three time winners. However, the undisputed king of the Firecracker is still Billy Clagett with six wins.