KAPALUA, Hawaii — Harris English was that player who always wanted the ball for the last shot. His trouble the last couple of years was getting off the bench and into the game.
English completed his turnaround from a seven-year drought with a victory that he felt was long overdue, making a 6-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole against Joaquin Niemann to win the Sentry Tournament of Champions.
He had the ball. And he was clutch.
He ran off four birdies in a five-hole stretch on the back nine to catch Niemann. Needing a birdie on the 18th at Kapalua, English hit a 3-iron so pure from a downhill lie that it rolled out to 10 feet for an eagle putt that he narrowly missed, settling for a 4-under 69 to force extra holes.
In the playoff, he lagged a long putt from off the front of the green to 6 feet for the winner
“When I was a kid, I loved having the ball when the clock’s running out in basketball,” English said. “I love — I love — the situations, and I crave getting back into that. I hadn’t had it in a long time. … You’ve got to have confidence in yourself.”
Niemann did his part with a 9-under 64, matching the low score of the tournament, impressive considering the blustery wind finally showed up on the Plantation Course for the final day.
But he missed a 6-foot birdie putt on the 18th that cost him. And on the same hole in the playoff, with a 30-yard advantage off the tee, he tugged his shot just enough that it tumbled down the shaggy slope left of the 18th. A full swing with a lob wedge only got it up the hill to the fringe, and his birdie attempt from 15 feet was short.
“I had a perfect line the second shot, I just mishit it a little bit,” Niemann said. “I got a little lucky that it carried the hazard and then it was not an easy lie.”
Niemann started the final round five shots behind and would have been happy at the start of the day to be in a playoff. But he couldn’t help but think of the 18th. “I just look back and I see those two par 5s. I made par.”
They finished at 25-under 267. It was the second straight year the tournament was decided by a playoff.
English once was among the rising American starts, winning a Nationwide Tour event while still an amateur and picking up two victories in 2013. But then he got into a funk, and he fell so far that he lost his full card in 2019 and was No. 369 in the world. He played so well from there that he reached the Tour Championship, and it paid off in a big way.
In a normal year, English wouldn’t be at Kapalua for the winners-only start to the year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down the PGA Tour for three months, the field was expanded to include anyone who reached the Tour Championship. Niemann also didn’t win last year.
But the fact he made it to the Tour Championship speaks to his turnaround. He did everything but win last season, and then he took care of that in the first tournament of the year. English now goes to No. 17 in the world, a career-best.
“It’s awesome to get some validation,” English said.
Justin Thomas stayed in the mix one day after he was heard uttering a homophobic slur under his breath after missing a short putt. Thomas apologized, and did so again after a 66 left him one shot out of the playoff.
He missed an 8-foot birdie chance on the 16th, and then three-putted from long range on the 17th for bogey. A birdie on the final hole wasn’t enough.
Dustin Johnson, in his first start since winning the Masters on Nov. 15, made an early run until he lost a tee shot in the native grass on No. 12 and made double bogey. He shot 69 and tied for 11th, ending his streak of seven consecutive top 10s dating to the first week in August.
Ryan Palmer, who shared the 54-hole lead with English, had an early lead with an eagle on the fifth hole. His hopes came undone when his tee shot on the par-3 11th turned left with the wind into the shin-high grass. It took him two to get out and he made double bogey. Palmer rallied with four birdies on his last five holes but shot 71 to finish two back.