Holiday pay: Aussie Cam Davis works overtime to take RMC crown on fifth playoff hole

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Say this much: The 2021 Rocket Mortgage Classic wasn't hurting for drama.

And some of it even had to do with golf shots.

Hard-charging Cam Davis of Australia made par on the signature hole of AREA 3-1-3 at Detroit Golf Club, the short, par-3 15th, to put an end to the PGA Tour's second consecutive sudden-death playoff, and to earn his first career win on the PGA Tour. He defeated Troy Merritt, the co-leader after 54 holes who missed a 6-footer for par, and came up just shy of his third victory.

It all concluded on the fifth playoff hole — in this union town, what's a little overtime on a holiday? — a week after Harris English went eight to beat Kramer Hickok at the Travelers Championship in Connecticut.

Cam Davis holds up the winner's trophy after winning the Rocket Mortgage Classic on Sunday at Detroit Golf Club in Detroit.

"It's still so surreal for me," said Davis, who entered the final round a shot back. "I've been in some good positions before, but to play the golf that I played coming down the stretch was just awesome.

"I'm sure I'll be able to look back, I'm sure some of it's on camera, so I'm sure I'll be able to relive some moments as well and really enjoy it again.

"But this has been awesome. I'm really, really happy with where I sit right now."

Why wouldn't he be? He was sitting next to the red, black and silver championship trophy Sunday night, and the $1.35 million first-place prize will hit his bank account Monday morning.

Joaquin Niemann, who shared the 54-hole lead with Merritt, didn't make a bogey through 72 holes of regulation. But in a cruel twist, he bogeyed the first playoff hole, the par-4 18th, and was eliminated.

The playoff went from 18 to 15 to 16 to 14 and back to 15, as tournament officials made a last-minute audible to keep the action in AREA 3-1-3 — so that fans wouldn't have to hoof it all over the grounds. They did enough mad-dashing after each playoff hole, to get in position for the next, scampering down the rough lines.

Davis had a chance to end the playoff after one hole, and on each of the next three holes. None of the putts were gimmes, mind you, but all were doable left-to-right breakers. He left the first two on the high side, the third low, the fourth high, and totally misread the last.

But in the end, it was enough. Merritt, for the second straight time at 15 in the playoff, pulled his approach left of the green. He got up and down from the bunker the first time to extend it, but couldn't from the rough.

"Cam did what he had to do," said Merritt, who kept his hopes alive by getting out of trouble on the third playoff hole, punching under a tree to just short of the 16th green, then getting up and down.

"He put it on every green, every hole, had a chance to win five times.

"We gave it all we had. It was just not quite good enough."


The Sunday show was plenty good enough, the fireworks before the fireworks, if you will.

At one point, late in regulation, five players were tied for the lead — Davis joining the fray when he blasted out of the greenside bunker short left of the par-5 17, and into the hole for an eagle. He followed that with a striped approach to inside 7 feet at the 18th, where he made birdie. Bryson DeChambeau went 3 under on his final three holes to win in 2020, and Davis bested that, going 3 under on his last two holes.

He made just the 10th birdie of the day on 18, the second-toughest hole of the week, fifth-toughest Sunday (and nearly did it again in the playoff). Many had their chances, but the severely sloped green is no pushover, regardless of how close you are. Alex Noren missed birdie that would've gotten him into the playoff, so did Hank Lebioda, the least-known lefty in the field. Niemann missed a 17-footer that would've won it for him. 

Not technically, but it was the bunker shot at 17 that won it for Davis.

Cam Davis reacts after he hits an eagle out of the sand trap on hole No. 17.

"It's the only reason I'm sitting here now," Davis said after the ninth playoff on the PGA Tour season — five or more holes in back-to-back weeks is a Tour first. "In my head, there wasn't a thought of trying to hole it. I was just trying to pick my spot and just hit another good bunker shot. I've hit a lot of good ones this week.

"Even when that went in, I still wasn't sure where I stood in the tournament, and I still felt like I had to play aggressive down 18."

He was right, and he did just that.

Davis, Niemann and Merritt finished at 18 under par, the highest winning score in the tournament's three-year history. Attribute that to super-soaked conditions early in the week that made the course play longer, even giving teeth to some typically benign par 5s.

DeChambeau won last year at 23 under and Nate Lashley in 2019 at 25 under.

Noren and Lebioda tied for fourth at 17 under, and Bubba Watson and Brandon Hagy tied for sixth, two shots back. Sungjae Im, Kevin Kisner and Seamus Power tied for eighth, at 15 under. Among the notables, Jason Day tied for 14th, Rickie Fowler tied for 32nd and Phil Mickelson tied for 74th.

Davis, 26, fired his second consecutive 67 — Sunday's included a 31 on the back nine — to catch Niemann and Merritt, who both shot 68.

Niemann played the steadiest golf of the week, keeping his bogey-free streak alive with fine saves on Nos. 12 and 13 on Sunday. He had some missed opportunities after that, missing a short birdie putt on No. 14, an eagle putt on 17 and the birdie putt on 18, before he was one-and-done in the playoff. After Davis hit his approach close on the first playoff hole, Niemann was aggressive, flew the green and couldn't save par.

It snapped a 77-hole bogey-free streak, which dates to last week.

"I know my game is good and I should have won this tournament, but I mean, it is what it is," Niemann, 22, of Chile, said just after being eliminated, while Davis and Merritt played on.

"It's hard to be standing here knowing that there is a playoff going on right now."

It was the second playoff Niemann has lost this year; he fell to English at the Tournament of Champions. It is his second strong showing in two appearances in Detroit, tying for fifth in 2019.

Merritt, 35, an Idaho resident who tied for eighth here last year, was in complete control of his game — and, really, the tournament — after he made a stunning ace on the par-3 11th hole Saturday. That opened up a three-stroke lead. He played his next 16 holes at 1 over par, including an even-par front nine Sunday.

He birdied four of his last six holes coming in to get to the playoff, where his best chance to win was an eagle putt on the fourth playoff hole, No. 14. He hit a beautiful fairway wood from 239 yards just long, and it trickled back to 30 feet. He missed the putt just short right, and Davis missed his eagle attempt from 17 feet — his approach shot landed right by the hole before bouncing long — short left. They halved with birdies.

On the next hole, Davis won with par. He hit just 12 greens in regulation, but then all five in the playoff. His previous best PGA Tour finish was third, in January at The American Express in California.

"I know it's a special day in America," said Davis, "and it is a special day for me, as well.

"It's cool to get this trophy."

Davis' victory capped a wild week at Detroit Golf Club, where the biggest storylines for the third playing of the Rocket Mortgage Classic — DeChambeau's split with his longtime caddie and Mickelson's beef with a Detroit News story, as well as the DGC groundscrew's Herculean effort getting the course playable after a week of relentless rain — often trumped the actual play. At least, until late in the day Sunday. Fans who missed out on attending the 2020 Rocket because of COVID-19 were treated to one heck of a makeup.

As he finished his celebratory press conference, Davis let out one prolonged sigh, then stared at his new trophy. Outside, fireworks were booming in the distance, and music was blaring on the patio.

The party had begun. The drama was over.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984