Column: Jason Kokrak’s performance in Northern Trust Open shows he belongs with the big boys

Jason Kokrak blasts out of a greenside bunker at No. 16, helping him save par during the final round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club.

Jason Kokrak blasts out of a greenside bunker at No. 16, helping him save par during the final round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

So many of the names atop the leaderboard at the Northern Trust Open late Sunday were familiar, a smattering of top-20-ranked golfers with green jackets, big wins, and big paydays on their resumes. Only Jason Kokrak’s name required a pronunciation guide (COKE-rack) and research into the journey that brought him to the Riviera Country Club and into position, at age 30, to record his first PGA Tour victory.

Kokrak, who was born in North Bay, Canada but raised in Ohio, turned pro in 2008, a year after he graduated from Xavier University. A burly 6 feet 4 and 225 pounds, he toiled on the developmental Tour for several years, earning a reputation as a big driver who couldn’t crack the top 20 on a consistent basis.

Yet, he started Sunday’s final round in a cluster of players one stroke behind leader Bubba Watson, and he drove to the lead thanks to a birdie on the 13th hole. He was playing with the big boys, and he heard the cheers for Watson roaring around him as he had heard the cheers for charismatic Dustin Johnson beside him on Saturday. This was territory Kokrak had never explored before.

“The wins I had on the, I think, go so far,” he said, smiling. “I think the PGA Tour is a whole new animal.”

It was an entirely different beast Sunday and despite a noble effort, Kokrak couldn’t quite tame it. He finished with a final-round 68 and a 14-under 270 for the tournament, putting him in a tie for second with Adam Scott, one stroke behind Watson, a nine-time PGA Tour winner.


Kokrak’s 270 matched his best career PGA Tour finish; his placement was his best in 10 starts this season and by far his best in five tries at the Northern Trust Open, where his previous best was a tie for 34th place in 2012. Still, he couldn’t help looking back at his missed opportunities, moments when steadier nerves or more experience might have gotten him that landmark victory.

Kokrak couldn’t hold off Watson, who birdied the 16th and 17th holes, and he missed a chance to pull even with Watson on the 18th when he missed a putt of about 15 feet. “I’ve seen the putt a hundred times on TV,” Kokrak said. “I read it right-center and it broke just a touch more than that. I hit a really good putt. I knew I needed to make the putt. I hit a great putt. I just missed it.”

But the misstep that will stick in his mind was on the 15th fairway, where he ended up three-putting for a bogey.

“I pulled the six-iron on 14 and it was basically the same shot, same wind. I should have known to just hit the seven-iron right in the middle of the green, leave yourself straight up the hill,” he said. “I just didn’t commit to the six-iron and pulled it a little bit and it went right through the wind and over the green.

“It’s a very difficult putt. I saw Chez [Reavie’s] and Bubba’s putts break left and mine didn’t, so a missed opportunity there.”

But he followed that by saying he had played well all day, not because he needed to convince himself but because it was the truth. He belonged with the big boys. “I had a blast,” he said, and he was determined to take some lessons from this, too.

“You’ve got to eliminate the mental mistakes,” he said. “Hitting it in the middle of the green on 15 is just … I had a two-shot lead at the time. I know that 16 and 17 and possibly 18 are all birdie holes for as long as Bubba and I hit it. I knew I needed to make par or better and birdie 17. If I birdie 17 and par the rest of them, I take the tournament but I didn’t do that.”

Watson, who did take the tournament, mentioned afterward to reporters that he had met Kokrak’s wife at breakfast but stumbled over the pronunciation of the family name. A few more performances like Kokrak had here and it will become, if not exactly a household name, a familiar sight atop tour leaderboards.

Twitter: @helenenothelen