MARIETTA, GA – Of the eight former University of Georgia golfers with status on the PGA Tour for the 2016-17 season, Hudson Swafford was the only without a victory on the tour.
Swafford, who is in his fourth season as a PGA Tour member, joined the list of winners from UGA, taking the annual stop in the Southern California desert formerly known as the Bob Hope Classic.
The 29-year- old Swafford, who has lived on St. Simons Island since he graduated from Georgia in 2011, carded three straight birdies late in the final round to break out of a multi-player logjam and win the tournament by one shot with a 20-under 268 total.
Former UGA teammate and fellow St. Simons resident Brian Harman, who tied for third at 18-under, said being the only non-winner among the ex-Bulldogs did not sit well with Swafford.
“Absolutely, yeah that bothers me,” Swafford said in his media conference after his victory. “But, no, I’m just happy to be in the club; happy to be part of the Georgia family. If it doesn’t bother you that all your friends around you have won, then you probably need to look for another job.”
Swafford was a teammate of five of the ex-Bulldog winners, playing with seniors Chris Kirk and Brendon Todd as a freshman and competing for most of his college career alongside Brian Harman, Harris English and Russell Henley, most of whom either living on St. Simons or formerly resided along the Georgia coast.
“I play with these guys day in, day out, live a couple miles away from them, and it motivates you. It’s just satisfying to be a part of it,” Swafford said.
Swafford was a highly touted junior out of Tallahassee, Fla., and made an immediate splash in Athens, earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors in 2007. The Bulldogs won the NCAA title in 2005 with Kirk, Todd and future PGA Tour winner Kevin Kisner on the squad, and Kirk and Todd were still on the 2007 team along with Harman, who was a year ahead of Swafford.
The 2007 Georgia team placed second in the NCAAs and was third in 2009 when Swafford and Henley were joined by English and Henley. After sitting out the 2009-10 season after undergoing shoulder surgery, Swafford returned as a fifth-year senior in 2011, and was part of the Bulldogs’ squad that lost 3-2 in the match play finals to Augusta State, led by Patrick Reed, who played briefly on the Georgia squad as a freshman in 2008-09. Swafford lost his match 3&2 to Augusta’s Mitch Krywulycz.
Swafford enjoyed a successful career in Athens, but spent most of his time there playing behind Harman, Henley and English and managed just one individual victory in his four seasons on the Georgia golf team. He was first team All-SEC and second team All-America in 2008 and ’09, but did not play as well after coming back from his injury.
Both Henley and English scored wins on the Nationwide (now Web.com) Tour in 2011, with Swafford winning as a pro in his rookie season in 2012. His victory came on the UGA course in Athens, where Henley won as a senior the previous year.
Swafford’s win in Athens came in memorable fashion, as he holed out from a greenside bunker for a birdie on the difficult par-4 18th hole at the UGA course, climaxing a 9-under 62 and a one-shot win over the unlikely due of Luke List and Lee Janzen.
Even with the victory, Swafford failed to finish in the top 25 on the money list to earn a PGA Tour berth. He made it the PGA Tour in 2014 after a solid effort in the Web.com Finals series of events in 2013, but he did not have a week like his one in 2012 in Athens for almost five years.
Swafford is among the longer hitters on the PGA Tour, ranking seventh in driving distance in 2015-16 and 11th so far this season. His short game has held him back, with his play around the greens other than putting his statistical weakness.
After back-to- back scores of 65 on the friendliest of the three courses in the La Quinta, Calif., area gave him the 36-hole lead, Swafford was headed for another score in the 60s on the more difficult Stadium course at PGA West. But he made double bogey on the par-5 16th after hitting his second shot into the mineshaft-deep bunker left of the green and barely cleared the hazard on the par-3 17th for a bogey to leave himself two shots behind Adam Hadwin, who shot 59 that day at La Quinta CC.
Just as he did when he shot 62 in the final round in his Nationwide victory at the UGA course, Swafford three-putted the first hole at the Stadium course, and trailed leader Chad Campbell by five after Campbell holed his third shot from the fairway for eagle on the par-5 fifth.
But Campbell made triple bogey on the next hole, and Swafford ran off consecutive birdies at holes 7, 8 and 9 to tie Campbell and Hadwin for the lead at the turn. Swafford lost his share of the lead after pars on the next five holes, but responded with his second run of three birdies in a row at 15, 16 and 17.
Swafford, who did not play especially well the final day the week before in Hawaii with a chance for a top-5 finish, closed out his round with a superb stretch of play over the closing holes. He birdied the tough par-4 15th with a 12-footer , hit a 230-yard 4-iron to 12 feet for a two-putt birdie at the 16th and stuffed his tee shot on the par-3 17th within 18 inches for a third straight birdie.
The birdie at 15 pulled Swafford into a tie with Cauley, and he took the lead at 16. Hadwin stayed within one with birdies at 16 and 17, but had to scramble for par at 18 while Swafford closed out his win with a solid par.
“Last week was kind of a bummer,” Swafford said of the Hawaiian Open, where he fell from third to a tie for 13th after a final round 71, the only over-par round among the top 26 finishers. “It’s one of my favorite courses and I felt like I was swinging at it good. I got a couple bad breaks on Sunday, but really felt comfortable in that situation.”
Swafford had managed just three top 10s in his first three seasons on the PGA Tour, two of them in Hawaii, and had never finished higher than eighth in three-plus seasons.
“I was really looking forward to coming back this week, because I knew my golf game was good. I just put myself right back in contention and thought I handled it pretty nice.”
After the three-putt bogey on the opening hole, Swafford told his caddie that he did the same thing when he scored his Nationwide Tour win in Athens, and was confident he was capable of duplicating that feat.
“I was like ‘I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but we’re going to be right in the mix on 18 and we’re going to have a chance to win and this is going to be a fun afternoon’. And it’s kind of what happened.” Swafford missed earning his PGA Tour after the 2012 Nationwide Tour season by $2,725, and slipped from 27th on the money list to 61st the next year. But he played his best golf of the season in the Web.com Finals series to earn a spot on the 2014 PGA Tour, and repeated that feat later in 2014 after placing 146th in the FedExCup standings.
The former Bulldog worked his way up the standings the next two years, placing 81 and 64 on the final points list, and moved up from 69th to sixth this season after his win. Swafford gained 115 spots in the World Golf Ranking from 204 to 89, and also earned his first ever Masters invitation, joining former UGA teammates Kirk, Harman, English and Henley, none of who are as yet qualified for the this year’s event in Augusta.