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Big John Highlights the Boise Open

by Chris Wood

The 2011 Albertsons Boise Open was all about the long ball.

John Daly’s booming drives highlighted the return of the Michelob Ultra Shoot-Out charity event to kick off tournament week, and Jason Kokrak, the longest hitter on the Nationwide Tour, ended it with a bogey-free round to take the first-place prize and a spot on the 2012 PGA Tour.

The tour’s Boise Open has been held at Hillcrest Country Club since 1990, with this year’s event being held September 15-18.

The Shoot-Out had been absent from tournament week since 2008 due to the slumping economy, but it returned with a headliner in Daly, who tied for 10th in the inaugural Boise Open in 1990 and played the charity event in 2003 with Michelle Wie.

With 8-year-old son Little John in tow, Big John didn’t disappoint as he outdueled Jamie Sadlowski, a former RE/MAX World Long Drive champion, to win the majority of the $25,000 charity pot while competing on behalf of the Boise State University golf teams.

Daly, who counts himself among the BSU football faithful, had joked that the Hillcrest Country Club layout should be painted blue (just like the field turf at the BSU stadium) for the charity event and had the BSU band and cheerleaders on his side.

“I have always enjoyed playing in Boise, entertaining the fans and spending time in the city,” Daly said. “My whole career is based on the fans, and it always has been.”

Daly couldn’t match distances with Sadlowski, the Canadian whose clubhead speed has been clocked at 148 mph (he reached the 359-yard 10th hole with a 14-degree hybrid), but the fans didn’t seem to mind. The 45-year-old Daly, whose hard living off the course has been well chronicled, still owned the day.

The majority of fans were still following Daly as he teed it up in the regular tournament for the first time in 21 years. Daly managed an even-par 71 during the opening round but felt a familiar twinge of pain from his troubled sciatic nerve. The pain intensified Friday, evidenced by a noticeable limp, and forced Daly to alter his swing.
“I basically had to go to a revised stack-and-tilt just to keep from hooking everything way left,” he said.

When Daly limped off No. 7 – his 16th hole – with a three-putt bogey, an early exit seemed inevitable.

“He’s done,” a fan in the large gallery concluded.

Not so fast.

Daly willed a 330-yard drive that yielded a birdie on No. 8 and shaved another stroke at No. 9 with a mashed drive and skillful wedge from 70 yards. Still, at 2-under par, he figured the score wouldn’t get him into the weekend.

“Probably missed it by a stroke or two,” he said with more accuracy as the cut line eventually fell at 3-under par. “I was trying my best to make the cut, but it’s hard to play with something like this.”

With Daly gone, attention turned to the leaders and another compelling story. Kokrak, a Nationwide Tour rookie, was the last man to get in the tournament and didn’t learn that news until Tuesday morning of tournament week. He managed to tone down the distance and find fairways on the tight Hillcrest layout and was tied for the lead at 14-under par following an 8-under 63 on Saturday.

While Kokrak was conservative on most of Hillcrest’s reachable par 4’s, he still showed some prodigious length off the tee. His 8-iron on the 293-yard 15th hole during the final round traveled an estimated 218 yards.

“I tried to pick and choose where my length was most advantageous,” he said. “The key was picking the right time to be aggressive and the right time to play away from the pins. It was important to leave myself a lot of uphill putts.”

The strategy played out well as he two-putted for an easy birdie on the par-5 16th and added two finishing pars to beat John Mallinger by two strokes. Kokrak played the final 59 holes without a bogey.

“I have no words to explain it. I honestly have no idea what was going through my mind out there. I just tried to stay calm and keep my heart from racing,” said Kokrak, who grew up in Ohio and graduated from Xavier University in 2007.

After vaulting from No. 70 to No. 13 on the Nationwide money list with the win in Boise, Kokrak followed it up with a wire-to-wire victory at the Miccosukee Championship in Miami and is now guaranteed a PGA Tour card for 2012.

“It’s always been my dream to play on Tour since I was a kid,” he said.

This one has come true.

Chris Wood has been covering Idaho for Pacific Northwest Golfer for two years. He began covering golf in 1985 as a sportswriter at the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello. Wood was the editor and publisher of Intermountain Golf Magazine from 1995-2006.