By Ken MacLeod
Austin Eckroat and Viktor Hovland had much to celebrate as they partied on a beach at the Mayakoba Resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, late into the evening Sunday.
Hovland, the eminently likeable young Norwegian by way of Oklahoma State was celebrating his second victory on the PGA Tour. Hours earlier he had poured in a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole for a one-shot victory over Aaron Wise in the Mayakoba Golf Classic.
Eckroat, the last remaining member at OSU of the 2018 powerhouse national championship Cowboy team that included Hovland and Matthew Wolff and a team that has already accounted for 11 professional wins, was thrilled for his former teammate and Stillwater roommate (he lives with Hovland in a house he has purchased in Stillwater).
He also had his own stirring accomplishment to celebrate. Invited as an amateur to play due to his high ranking in the PGA Tour University standings, Eckroat showed he was ready for his time at the highest level to begin, shooting 14-under to finish tied for 12th.
It was a great showing that could have been even better. He was 5-under through six holes of Saturday’s round before losing steam and settling for a 4-under 68. On Sunday he reeled off five consecutive birdies on holes 3-7, pulled into the top five momentarily and began to have visions of posting a really low score, maybe even sub 60.
“Those things run through your mind real quick,” Eckroat said Tuesday after returning to Edmond and getting a morning workout in at Oak Tree National. “I thought if I could get to eight or nine under on the round I might have a chance. But I just couldn’t make enough putts. I hit 17 of 18 greens the last round and 15 of those were within 15 feet, so the ball striking was great.
“I had thoughts of trying to chase Viktor down, but it turned out the way it did in college most of the time. He played a great final round and made a hell of a birdie on the last hole. He was really happy to get that second win out there. You put in a lot of work and it’s such a relief when you can close it out.”
It was Eckroat’s first PGA Tour event, though he qualified for the U.S. Open in 2018. He met and enjoyed the company of Tony Finau and Charley Hoffman, who he said was particularly nice to him and caddie Stone Coburn, a former teammate at Edmond North who will also be Eckroat’s caddie as a professional.
Eckroat said he proved to himself that his ball striking was the equal of the touring pros, but that he has work to do on his putting. For the week he was seventh in driving distance at 301.1 yards, tied for fourth in greens in regulation at 80.6 percent and made 19 birdies.
“That’s the one thing you notice is that when they really have to, those guys just make putts,” he said. “There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with my stroke, but I need to make more putts. That’s going to be the difference out there.”
Eckroat would have made $147,000 for his 12th place finish, but many more checks like those are in his future. Also showing that he will be cashing checks on the PGA Tour was Quade Cummins, the University of Oklahoma’s sixth-year senior All-American from Weatherford. He shot even par and finished tied for 67th.
Both players will benefit in the PGA Tour University rankings when the new ones are issued. Eckroat was fourth and could move up to third at least. Cummiins was eighth as of Dec, 6 and could move up as well. The top 5 at the end of the college season will receive exemptions into 10 Korn Ferry Tour events in the summer of 2021 and into the final stage of qualifying school for the 2021-22 season, meaning they are guaranteed at least some status on the Korn Ferry Tour for the following season.
Eckroat and Cummins both play out of Oak Tree National in Edmond, where Wolff, Hovland, Gooch and a host of other young professionals are members. Eckroat said he expects Hovland will eventually move to Edmond and he plans to remain there after turning professional next summer.
“We’re really been talking about bringing back a second running of the Oak Tree Gang,” Eckroat said. “We think that would be really cool to get it restarted.”
Before the spring season resumes in January, look for Eckroat along with OU’s Garret Reband (currently sixth in PGA Tour University rankings) on a national television special on Dec. 16, a two-hour event on Golf Channel called the PXG College Golf Showcase. They will team with former NFL players Jerome Bettis and Brian Urlacher against two other collegians and celebrities in an event for charity. The event has already been taped. More details to come.
Looking ahead to spring, Eckroat said the Cowboys are reloaded and ready to compete for an NCAA title, thanks to transfers such as Leo Oyo from San Diego State and Eugenio Chacarra from Wake Forest, along with improvements of the young returnees such as Rasmus Neergaard-Petersen, Aman Gupta, Rayhan Thomas, Brian Stark and others.
“It’s going to be very competitive and just like that team in 2018, you never know who’s going to earn a start,” Eckroat said, while allowing that in 2018 everyone knew Wolff and Hovland were in the lineup, just as this year he is pretty well assured of being the one constant.
After starting the fall with nine of 13 players battling Covid-19 infections at one time or another, the Cowboys recovered to win the Maridoe Invitational against a strong field on a difficult course in late October.
“That’s our first team win since my sophomore year and that was against a great field,” Eckroat said. “We’ve got a chance. We’ve got a lot of talent and a lot of guys that ware wanting to prove themselves.”
Notes: Oklahoma’s impact on PGA Tour continues to grow
With victories by Edmond North product Robert Streb and Hovland to close out the fall season on the PGA Tour, there’s no telling how big of an impact Oklahomans may have this year on the wraparound 2020-21 season.
In looking back at results since 1980, there has been at least one player with Oklahoma ties win every year except 2005, and usually multiple victories. The most in a row was three when Bruce Lietzke (who had a home on Grand Lake) won the Southwestern Bell Colonial, followed by Bill Glasson of Stillwater in the Kemper Open and David Edwards (then of Edmond) in the Memorial.
The next full field event is not until the Sony Open the second week of January, but there could be an Oklahoma presence in this weekend’s QBE Shootout in Naples, Fla. Wolff and former Sooner Abraham Ancer are teaming up as a Bedlam entrant in the field of 12 teams, while the defending champions are Kevin Tway along with Rory Sabbatini.