Risk pays off for Sam Wempe as final-hole birdie delivers TGA City Stroke Play title

Wempe drives No. 18 green at Topeka Country Club, edges Mark Elliott by one shot for first TGA crown

The beauty of No. 18 at Topeka Country Club is the high-risk, high-reward nature of the drivable 284-yard par 4.

 

Even before teeing off No. 1 in Sunday’s final round of the TGA City Stroke Play, Sam Wempe had already made up his mind just how he was going to play the hole, regardless of his position entering it.

“I play out here enough that it’s a driver all day long,” Wempe said.

Wempe didn’t waver from that mindset one bit when he and Mark Elliott reached the No. 18 tee box tied atop the leaderboard. Whatever minimal risk there was in hitting with the driver, Wempe found the reward after he laced a perfect drive.

It was so good, in fact, that it nearly went in the hole for a rare par-4 ace. Instead, the ball rolled through the cup and came to rest 25 feet away and Wempe safely two-putted for birdie and watched Elliott slide his eight-foot birdie attempt by the hole, taking his first City Stroke Play title.

Wempe carded a final-round 2-under 69 to finish at 207, one shot ahead of Elliott, who posted a 1-under 70 and finished at 208. First- and second-round leader Justice Valdivia saw a mid-round slump derail his chances at his first title and shot a 74, taking third at 210.

Wempe finished runner-up to Elliott for the 2009 Stroke Play title and also lost to Elliott in the finals of the 2007 City Match Play. While revenge wasn’t necessarily on his mind, Wempe said beating Elliott for his first Stroke Play crown made the victory even more satisfying.

“The one thing about Mark is he’s got as good of a track record as any guy in the city,” Wempe said. “He’s won this thing four times, he’s won Match Play, he wins all the senior stuff. He’s as good of a player as there is out here. It’s satisfying and builds your confidence, but it also makes you a better player playing against him.”

As big as Wempe’s clutch birdie on the final hole was, arguably the biggest swing hole in the match came much earlier on the back nine. Going into the par-5 No. 12, Valdivia and Elliott were tied for the lead while Wempe was a shot back.

But a well-struck 5-wood from 249 yards by Wempe settled 10 feet away for eagle and Wempe rolled it in. Elliott’s approach, meanwhile, rolled through the green and he flubbed a chip before getting up and down for par. Valdivia found the trees on the right with his drive and couldn’t get up and down for par, making a bogey.

The swing left Wempe with a one-shot lead over Elliott and two-shot edge on Valdivia.

“It was really big,” Wempe said. “It’s a hole you want to birdie, but you also want an eagle opportunity if you get it. Mark’s strengths are short game and wedges and for him not to hit the first chip the way he wanted and me to make an eagle putt, it was a big swing of momentum.”

Wempe gave it right back on the next hole with a bogey after his 3-iron on the par 3 clipped a tree and he fluffed his chip. Elliott lipped out a 45-foot birdie putt, but left tied for the lead. Wempe regained the lead on No. 15, making birdie on the par 5 to Elliott’s par, but again gave it right back with a lip-out bogey from three feet on No. 16.

After both he and Elliott got up and down for pars on 17, it set up the final hole drama. Elliott laid up safely in the fairway while Wempe went for the green. Even with the seeming advantage, Wempe knew it was far from over.

“One hundred percent in my mind I knew Mark was going hit an iron because he hits his wedges better than anybody out here,” Wempe said. “You knew he wasn’t going to have anything more than 10, 15 feet.”

He didn’t. Elliott stuffed his wedge to eight feet to give himself a great look at birdie and keep the pressure on Wempe. After Wempe left his eagle putt three feet short, Elliott saw his birdie slide by the top edge of the hole and his chances of capturing his first Stroke Play title since 2010 go with it.

“No. 18, I always play it that way,” Elliott said. “I’d rather have a wedge in there and I hit it perfect, hitting it high so it wouldn’t spin. It stopped and I left myself an eight-footer which I was like 1-for-15 on this week. I hit it good, just too firm. I hit a lot of good putts that didn’t go in this week.”

Despite coming up one shot short, Elliott could hardly bemoan his performance in his first Stroke Play tourney since 2011. He made just three bogeys all week.

“For three days I played really solid,” Elliott said. “I really didn’t get into much trouble at all. … There’s a little pressure when you’re expected to be right there. My ball-striking was great — I had no problem with that and hit it good for three straight days.”

Valdivia entered the final round with a two-shot lead on Wempe and Elliott and stretched it to three over Elliott and two over Wempe when he chipped in from the right of the No. 7 green for his second birdie in three holes.

The shot, coming after he had just missed the green with a shaped approach from within the right trees, seemed like it might be a bit of a dagger. Instead, Valdivia hit a mini-funk. Starting with a three-putt bogey on No. 9, Valdivia made four bogeys in a five-hole stretch to fall out of the lead.

“The putts just weren’t falling on the back nine and that’s what let me down today, my putter,” Valdivia said. “I didn’t hit the ball that terrible, but I just didn’t make many putts. Sam played well and it was a tough day out there today and I didn’t have my best game. But a 74 could have been worse and I’ll take it and hope I can keep playing well at the Kansas Amateur this week.”

TGA City Stroke Play

207 — Sam Wempe, 70-68-69

208 — Mark Elliott, 70-68-70

210 — Justice Valdivia, 66-70-74

219 — Tavin Dugan, 72-71-76

220 — Ben Moser, 74-71-75

221 — Seth Kelley, 72-74-75; Zach Hillmer, 72-77-72; Dave Carson, 75-75-71

224 — Adam Head, 71-74-79

226 — Jerry Kruger, 72-75-79; Mac McFarland, 77-71-78; Casey Pierce, 75-76-75; Max Stucky-Halley, 75-76-75

227 — Justin Jacquinot, 69-77-81; Bill Kroll, 77-74-76 228 — CC Metzler, 77-72-79

230 — Brad Yeubanks, 74-74-82

231 — Jeremiah Nelson, 74-75-82

232 — Thad Wellshear, 73-77-82; Eric Kolean, 77-74-81

234 — Brent Millikan, 74-78-82

235 — Jack Hillman, 74-80-81; Drew Judd, 75-80-80

236 — Ryan Clatterbuck, 74-78-84; Aaron Rethman, 77-81-78

238 — Bill Kell, 78-78-82

239 — Patrick Golden, 77-77-85; Fran Matthias, 78-76-85; Orlando Moreno, 78-80-81

242 — Matt Francis, 82-74-86

247 — Mason Wages, 80-84-83

250 — Ryan Johnson, 80-84-86

256 — John Waldo, 87-77-92

271 — Stacy Kramer, 91-88-92

273 — Mick McDonald, 94-85-94

284 — Matt Burkdoll, 86-102-96

289 —TJ McDonald, 92-98-99

300 — Alex Orel, 102-103-95

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