When Congaree Golf Club was called upon to pinch-hit for the RBC Canadian Open, the brand-new hidden gem presented a golden opportunity for a breakthrough win. The stars were aligning for Chesson Hadley with a four-shot lead to begin the final round, but as the overcast skies gave way to sunshine, a young South African seized the moment to ignite his professional career.
In just his second-ever PGA Tour start, 22-year-old Garrick Higgo rallied from a six-stroke deficit with a 3-under 68 on Sunday to overtake Hadley at 11-under and win the 2021 Palmetto Championship at Congaree.
“I’m proud of the way I hung in there,” Higgo said. “It was tough all the way from the start. Definitely didn’t have my A game in terms of off the tee, but I like that sometimes. I like not having to play perfect golf. I enjoy scrambling and making a couple putts, which was awesome.”
The tournament was in Hadley’s control at the start of the day, as the Raleigh native began his round four shots clear of playing partner Harris English. But just three holes in, the lead was all gone. A pair of early Hadley bogeys brought English and the field right back into the mix. It looked like a Georgia-Georgia Tech duel between the final two golfers on the course would decide the champion, as Hadley snatched the lead back at the par-4 6th with English dropping a shot. The Valdosta native struck back at the tricky par-3 10th, sticking a tee shot eight feet from the hole while Hadley missed the green and settled for bogey to knot the two golfers at -12.
But as the final pairing made its way to the back nine, the leaderboard began to tighten up. After a slow start to his Sunday, South Carolinian Dustin Johnson, the world’s number one ranked player, was hot on the comeback trail with three birdies in four holes to get within one of the lead. With a massive eagle on the par-5 12th, a name from yesteryear cashed in to add himself to a share of the lead. At age 46, Bo Van Pelt was eying to join Stewart Cink and Phil Mickelson on this year’s list of veteran winners in the Palmetto State.
Meanwhile, a young gun searching for a career-launching victory was ready to make his move. With a brilliant strike to the green on the 12th hole, Higgo calmly rolled in an eagle to catapult himself to 10-under par. As a string of three bogeys in four holes dropped English backwards, the South African kept climbing. Higgo drained a majestic 23-foot birdie putt on the 14th to reach -11, just two strokes back of Hadley.
The leader showed some struggles off the tee and on his approach shots after a birdie on 12, but the Georgia Tech graduate kept out of trouble with his standout putting. However, the miscues quickly came around to bite him as Hadley entered the final three holes. A wayward drive to the native area on the 16th necessitated an extra shot, and a missed green on the ensuing 17th resulted in two bogeys, evaporating the lead entirely.
At the same time, Higgo was as steady as a rock, racking up pars on Congaree’s unforgiving home stretch filled with deep bunkers and numerous waste areas. His best save came on 17. The tee shot sped over to a native area, and his second bid evaded the green to sit near a tree outline. Higgo stayed composed while being immersed with pressure, pitching the ball to just nine feet of the flag before sinking a clutch par putt. Then he played a killer 18th hole perfectly to finish off with a par and an 11-under score to tie the reeling Hadley while partner Van Pelt suffered a double bogey to drop out of contention.
Higgo was expecting at least a playoff as he made his way back to the range. But little did he know his work was already done. Needing just a par on 18 to force a playoff and a birdie to win, Hadley made a solid drive on the sharp right dogleg bordered by water and a menacing bunker. With nearly the whole green to aim at, Hadley went wide right, touching the grandstands. A solid pitch from the fringe set up a make-or-break 9-foot putt to extend the tournament. But the final bid whistled by the right edge of the cup for a third straight bogey, giving the 22-year-old Higgo a life-changing win.
“When I made eagle on 12, I didn’t have to scoreboard watch,” Higgo said. “I knew already I was kind of up there or close enough. It was just whether Chesson was going to run away with it or if we were going to stay up there and have a chance.”
A mix of timely iron play and spectacular putting has earned Higgo an improbable victory and a permanent spot on the PGA Tour through the 2022-23 seasons. It was the first time the Tour had seen a player overcome a six-shot 54-hole deficit since back in 2018. With his fourth tournament win in just nine months, a new South African star is officially in the making.
It was total heartbreak for Hadley, who settled for a six-way tie for second place alongside Hudson Swafford, Doc Redman, Jhonattan Vegas, Van Pelt, and Tyrrell Hatton. After an implosion of his own capped off by a triple-bogey, Johnson fell to a tie for 10th at -8. Beaufort County’s own Bryson Nimmer held strong to finish off a solid week at Congaree, carding an even-par 71 to end his week in a tie for 35th at -3.
It may be the only time we see a PGA Tour event at this hidden masterpiece, but the legacy of the Palmetto Championship will live on. With the springboard win under his belt, Higgo will look to keep the show rolling in a few days on the other coast for the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
Before he teed up his first ball for a round that changed the course of his career, Higgo spoke with fellow South African and nine-time major champion Gary Player. A few hours later, the legend’s lessons were used to spark the beginnings of another.
“He told me he’s done it before quite a few times, the way he’s won from six behind, seven behind,” Higgo said. “He just said don’t think too much about what the other guys are doing, just kind of do your thing and stay up there, and you never know what could happen.”
By Wes Kerr