Fresh off capturing his third-straight Kitchen Creek Classic men’s golf title, Gareth Payne admitted Sunday’s victory here held a special meaning over the previous two.
That’s because the 22-year-old from Atikokan had to overcome a three-stroke deficit heading into the final round to pull out victory.
After carding a disappointing 77 in Saturday’s opening round, Payne roared back with a two-under-par 70 to earn a one-shot win over Rob Badiuk, a two-time Classic champ himself.
Badiuk opened with a 75 on Saturday, then fired a one-over 73 Sunday for a 148 total, one shot off the pace.
“This [win] was special because it was my first come-from-behind victory in a tournament,” said Payne, coming off a tournament win in Sioux Lookout the previous weekend.
"I set a goal for myself Sunday to win the tournament, and I accomplished that.
“I played well. I knew I had to shoot under 70 to win the tournament,” he added.
Sandy Sargent was tied for the lead after 18 holes with a two-over-par 74 but then faltered somewhat Sunday with a 76 to finish second in the championship flight with a two-day total of 150.
Greg Terlesky was next at 152 (75-77), followed by Mike Katrin at 155 (80-75).
Payne, who golfs in Oklahoma on a college scholarship, had won the previous two Classics by a pair of six-stroke margins over Thunder Bay’s Walter Keating. In those tournaments, the question wasn’t if he was going to win but, rather, by how much?
But a “three-peat” certainly didn’t look to be in the cards for the burly right-hander after his five-over-par 77 on Saturday, three shots back of Sargent and Brian Bukovy, and behind three other golfers (Badiuk, Terlesky and Wayne Hendrickson).
But to his credit, Payne fought back, playing near flawless golf over the final 18 holes, nailing birdies on his first two holes en route to his two-under 70.
Heading into the weekend tourney, Payne said the key to beating Kitchen Creek was the start of the front nine, which included a pair of “potential” birdie holes on the par-fives at #2 and #3. It was there, he said, that golfers have the chance to get out to a quick start.
And that’s exactly what he did Sunday afternoon.
Starting from #2, Payne carded a four there and at #3. Then after a bogey five at #4, he birdied the par-five sixth to come in with a two-under 35 through the first nine holes.
“I knew if I could do well on the par-fives, which I did [on Sunday], I had a chance [to win]. There’s four par-fives on the course and I birdied all of them,” said Payne, who finished up with five birdies, three bogeys, and 10 pars.
But Payne, known to hit the ball long off the tee, admitted it was his putter that saved Saturday’s 77 from ballooning to a round that would have all but eliminated him from contention.
“[Saturday] was just one of those days, up and down. I bogeyed the first couple of holes and just couldn’t get on track,” he said.
“My putter was really working for me on Saturday, or it could have gotten ugly. It was my saving grace,” he added, noting he made just 27 putts that first day.
Despite his slow start, Payne said he likes Kitchen Creek because it fits his game.
“There’s some holes where you get to pull your driver out and tee it up and there’s some other holes you have to play it smart,” he remarked.
And because there’s no leader board out on the course, Payne said he had no idea where he stood coming down the home stretch. In fact, he said he was surprised when told he had a three-stroke lead over Badiuk after 12 holes.
“Actually, because I started on the second hole, the leaders come in [to the clubhouse] after me so I think it [lack of a visible leader board] works to my advantage,” he explained.
Still, as good as Payne played the final 18, Badiuk was equally impressive on the back nine, including a birdie on the par-four, 387-yard 14th and then a string of four straight pars to close to within one shot.
“Rounding nine, I knew Gareth had a three-stroke lead so I tried to birdie the last three or four holes, and hope he falters,” said Badiuk.
“But he’s a quality player—a college player—who lives and breathes golf," he added. "He’s not going to make too many mistakes.”