Jake Hendrix stood next to the Lions Municipal Golf Course clubhouse stunned.
His facial expressions seemed to indicate he had just seen a ghost, but in reality he had just pulled off one of the greatest final-round comebacks in Austin amateur golf history.
After starting the final round nine shots behind leader Michael Rome, Hendrix stormed back to shoot a 10-under 61 — the lowest round of his tournament career — to force a playoff, which he won on the second hole to claim what very well could be the last Firecracker Open ever at “Muny.”
“I knew that to have any chance of winning I needed to shoot at least 10 under — maybe 9 would do it,” said Hendrix, an Austin native who is a fifth-year senior at Stephen F. Austin. “I just had to go out there and free-wheel it. I went for everything and made birdies.”
Hendrix said afterward that he still didn’t expect to win entering the round. To be frank, not a single person could have expected him to. The day was supposed to be about two individuals only.
Rome, a sophomore at UTSA and Westlake High School alumnus, began the final round at 14 under carrying a two-shot lead. Fellow Westlake graduate Alex Ellis, a former Firecracker champion who is currently an assistant coach at the College of Charleston, trailed in second at 12 under. Trevor Brown, another former Westlake player, was in third at 8 under and played in the same group as Rome and Ellis.
A handful of other players lurked behind at 5 and 6 under par, including Hendrix at 5 under. But with fast greens, a steady wind and some of the most difficult pin locations possible, surely no one could get hot enough to mount a charge.
But when Ellis’ group arrived at the 18th hole, his caddie informed him of what had just happened and that he now trailed by one.
“I was kind of focused too much on Trevor and Michael,” Ellis said. “Then I get to 18 and they say Jake shot 61.”
For most of the day, Ellis was in the driver’s seat of this tournament. Rome faltered on the front nine, while Brown tried to ignite a charge but just could never get close enough. Ellis, meanwhile, stayed mostly steady.
Ellis bogeyed the par-3 17th to fall to 14 under. With Hendrix in the clubhouse at 15 under, Ellis needed a birdie at the last to force a playoff. He did just that when he drilled about a 15-footer for birdie on 18, sending the gallery of roughly 50 people into a frenzy.
“Those are the kind of putts why you play the game,” Ellis said.
Hendrix and Ellis went back to the 18th hole for a sudden-death playoff. After nervy pars, the two went to the par-4 first for the second playoff hole. Ellis and Hendrix each came up short with their approach shots, and then each chipped to about four feet.
After Hendrix made a tricky downhiller for his par, Ellis had a chance to force a third playoff hole. Ellis had made big, momentous putts all day long. This one just seemed like a formality. But nothing in golf is ever truly as simple as it seems.
Ellis pulled his par putt, stunning the gallery and giving an abrupt ending to one of the wildest final rounds in Firecracker Open history.
“My game hadn’t been under tournament pressure like this in probably two years,” said Ellis, who just recently regained his amateur status and decided to compete again. “I didn’t really know what to expect. Ball-striking was off today, probably because of the nerves, but I felt like I grinded it out as hard as I can.”
Monday’s finish was just another classic example of how anything can happen in this game — and how quirky it can be. Before he even began the Firecracker Open, Hendrix’s game was not where he wanted it to be. He played so poorly at the Texas Amateur a few weeks ago at Whispering Pines Golf Club that he decided to change his grip from interlocking to overlapping.
“I’ve changed it before, and I just felt like I could be more consistent,” Hendrix said.
The change paid off. Hendrix shot rounds of 68 and 69 to put him at 5 under heading into Monday’s final round. Then he played the greatest round of his life to completely validate the grip change. He said he knew he had a chance to make a real run on Monday after he eagled the par-5 12th, which got him to 7 under on the day. Hendrix then kept his foot on the gas. He closed with birdies at the 14th, the always-demanding par-4 16th and the 18th to post 15 under.
Hardly anyone at Lions on Monday could believe it. The length-deprived course is always gettable, but it still requires precision shot-making.
Asked after his round if he thought a 61 was possible, Hendrix spoke as if he still couldn’t believe what he had just done.
“Not really, to be honest,” Hendrix said. “I didn’t know if it was out there with these pins, obviously. I felt like 5 or 6 (under) would have been a good score, coming in fourth or third place. But it was pretty cool to get the win.”
For the full results from the 2018 Firecracker Open, click here: leaderboard.htm