For one day at Pebble Beach, Ted Potter Jr. was better than the best in the world. Look back even further, and his three-shot victory in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am is even more remarkable.
He played so many mini-tour events that he lost track of how many he won, some of them only two-day tournaments that paid enough for a week’s worth of food and gas. His biggest paycheck was $33,000. More recently, Potter was out of golf for two years recovering from a broken ankle that required two surgeries – one to insert 12 screws and two plates, another to remove all that hardware. There was no guarantee he would make it back.
Potter started the final round Sunday tied with Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world for the last year. Throughout the day, Phil Mickelson and Jason Day each made a run at the 34-year-old Floridian who had 46 missed cuts and only four top 10s in his previous 83 starts on the PGA Tour.
Potter beat them all.
He was the one chatting with Clint Eastwood and posing with the crystal trophy that comes with a $1,332,000 check and a return to the Masters.
“I’m so happy right now to get it done today, especially against the world No. 1, playing with him today,” Potter said. “The win here at Pebble is just unbelievable.”
Just don’t call it a fluke.
Potter closed with a 3-under 69 and didn’t drop a shot after a three-putt bogey on the opening hole. Making it tougher was playing in a threesome behind a foursome in the pro-am format, having too much time to think about the stage, the contenders and the opportunity.
He never flinched.
The key moment came behind the green on the par-3 seventh, the most picturesque at Pebble Beach. He and Johnson were side-by-side in light rough to a firm green that ran away from them. Johnson chipped nicely to 4 feet. Potter put a little more loft on his shot and holed it for a birdie and a two-shot lead.
No one got closer the rest of the way.
He wound up winning by three shots over Johnson (72), Mickelson (67), Day (70) and Chez Reavie (68).
Potter stepped awkwardly off a curb at the Canadian Open in 2014 and broke his ankle so badly that he didn’t play another tournament until Canada two years later. He wound up having to work his way back to the PGA Tour through the developmental tour last year.
The 18th hole gave him plenty of time to consider how far he had come.
Day, trying to make eagle for his only chance at winning, hooked a driver off the deck over the sea wall. He found the ball on a mixture of sand and pebbles and played it off the beach , over the sea wall, over the green and into a bunker. Troy Merritt hit his shot into a cypress tree in front of the 18th green and it stayed up there, meaning he had to go back and play another shot.
Potter waited patiently, tapped in for a par to finish at 17-under 270 and only then did he show how much it meant. His voice choked with emotion.
“It’s been a struggle,” he said. “You break your ankle and you don’t know what’s going to happen with your swing, with your career. It’s unbelievable right now. … This has been a blast this week.”
It was another disappointment for Johnson going into the final round. He now won only five out of 12 times when he took at least a share of the 54-hole lead into the final round. He fell back Sunday with a tee shot so bad on the par-3 fifth that it sailed over the edge of the cliff and he did well to escape with bogey, and then a shot he misjudged in a tough wind on No. 8 that went into the back bunker for another bogey.
“A few iron shots cost me a few bogeys,” said Johnson, who played Pebble in 70-72 on the weekend. “Two under in 36 holes is not too good as well as I thought I was playing. I’d like to have put a little more pressure on Ted.”
Mickelson began his move late with three birdies in a four-hole stretch ended at the par-3 17th . Needing an eagle to have any chance, his approach to the 18th was a few yards short and found a bunker. He failed to get up and down.
Mickelson had his highest finish since he was runner-up to Henrik Stenson in the 2016 British Open. Coming off a tie for fifth at the Phoenix Open, this is the first time he has put together consecutive top 5s since he won back-to-back in 2013 at the Scottish Open and British Open.
“I made a few good birdies coming down the stretch there to feel the nerves again,” Mickelson said. “Unfortunately, it’s not enough, but it was a great week, a lot of fun, perfect weather and really had a great time.”
Reavie, a playoff loser in Phoenix last week, went out in 31 and was at 15 under, two shots behind. He made eight pars and a bogey on the back nine, with most of the damage coming on a wedge that came up short and into the bunker on the par-5 14th. With back-to-back runner-up finishes, Reavie goes to No. 43 in the world.
Potter now has a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour, along with getting spots in the Masters and PGA Championship.
The other tournament also was a runaway. Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald teamed with Kevin Streelman to win the pro-am by seven shots.