Austin Eckroat is living proof that on the PGA Tour, the difference between winning and merely sniffing the chance to win can be measured in inches.
Eckroat, a native of Edmond, Okla., has never actually won on Tour. He may never win, although since he’s just 24 and in only his third full season there’s still time.
Sunday at the Byron Nelson in Dallas, he came about as close as it’s possible to come without actually winning.
Eckroat finished at 21-under, one stroke behind the champion, Jason Day.
He and Si Woo Kim, who also finished 21-under, are the 13th and 14th players this season to either come up one stroke short or lose in a playoff. Five of those 14, Eckroat being the latest, were — and still are — in search of their breakthrough Tour win.
When you consider the stakes involved in actually winning a PGA Tour event – a two-year exemption from qualifying, automatic entry into two Majors and the Players, not to mention seven-figure prize money – actually winning is a career-making event. Which of course is what makes coming so close all the more frustrating.
But the real frustration often lies in looking back and pondering all the what-ifs involved in a one-stroke loss. In that sense, Eckroat’s week is a lesson plan.
On at least seven different occasions at TPC Craig Ranch, Eckroat either came within literal inches of finding the stroke that would have sent him into a playoff or did something subtlely damaging enough to forfeit the stroke. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to suggest that the margin separating himself from Day on Sunday alone amounted to just seven inches.
Here’s a recap of seven notations from Eckroat’s scorecards…seven opportunities gone narrowly awry that meant the difference between what might have been and what was. Collectively they beautifully illustrate how difficult it is to actually win a PGA Tour event.
1. Friday, second hole, third shot. On the 447 yard par four, Eckroat had struck two nigh-on perfect shots, leaving him inside of 10 feet under the cup. His birdie putt kissed the right lip before rolling to a stop 21 inches past its target.
2. Friday, 18th hole, third shot. Eckroat was 117 yards out and in perfect position for his approach on the 554 yard par 5 closing hole. But a mis-hit barely reached the extreme front of the putting surface, leaving more than 42 feet between him and the birdie that almost everybody in the field was making. He ran that birdie putt by and had to be content with a par 5.
3. Saturday, seventh hole, tee shot. On his way to a third-round 63, Eckroat really hit only one bad shot, but it cost him dearly. At the 237 yard par 3, he pulled his tee shot into a full-out no-go zone, a native area teeming with brush. All he could do was hack it over the green entirely to a spot where he did well to pitch on and two-putt for a double bogey.
4. Sunday, fifth hole, tee shot. The 578 yard par 5 played as the third easiest hole on the course, but not for Eckroat. The seventh most accurate player all week in finding fairways, he missed this one, pushing it into a right-side fairway bunker. More than 260 yards out and in sand, his try at reaching the green came up 75 yards short, barely avoiding another bunker. A pitch and two putts left him with a mere par.
5. Sunday, sixth hole, third shot. One hole later, Eckroat drove perfectly and backed up his wedge approach to within 10 feet above the hole. The downhill putt was guaranteed to get there, but it failed to take the subtle right-to-left break Eckroat expected and brushed the edge of the cup, coming to rest a frustrating four inches from a birdie.
6. Sunday, ninth hole, drive. For the second time on this final day’s front nine, Eckroat’s driver did his cause just enough damage to be fatal. On the 523 yard par 5, it carried nearly 300 yards but found the heavy right rough. Eckroat was able to carry the hazard 190 yards distant, but his ball nestled into more rough short of the second stretch of fairway. On a hole most of the field was birdying, it was again all he could do to pitch on and two-putt for a par that felt like a bogey.
7. Sunday, 11th hole, third shot. At the 473 yard par 4, Eckroat was in contention and playing like it. He drove perfectly, then nervelessly laced a 182-yard iron within 14 feet of the flag, which was tucked back left. The putt was a left-to-right slider…at least it should have been. Eckroat started it left, then watched the ball ignore gravity and hold a true course until stopping just three inches from the hole.
Anybody who shoots 21-under makes a lot of great shots, so it’s no knock on Eckroat that the seven shots mentioned above failed to cooperate. But it does serve to illustrate the microscopic nature of the gap between winning and not winning on Tour.