The year of the career comebacks for a number of Georgia golfers on the PGA Tour continued Sunday in the Dominican Republic.
Hudson Swafford won the Corales Puntacana Resort Championship, joining a list of Georgians who have revived their careers in the past year. The group includes fellow ex-Bulldogs Brendon Todd, who won twice last Fall, and Harris English, as well as Georgia Tech’s Stewart Cink, who won the 2020-21 opener two weeks ago in Napa, Calif.
Swafford, a St. Simons Island resident, collected his first PGA Tour victory in 2017 in Palm Springs, Calif., early in his fourth season on Tour, but was sidelined for six weeks in 2018 by a rib injury and for almost six months in 2019 after having a small bone removed from his foot.
Since his return to action late last season, Swafford has been playing on a medical extension, and was close to regaining his status early this year before Covid-19 halted play for three months.
With his victory Sunday, Swafford is exempt on the PGA Tour through the 2022-23 PGA Tour season and earned spots in the 2021 Tournament of Champions, Players Championship, Masters and PGA Championship.
After three seasons of injuries, limited starts and mostly sub-standard play, Swafford is back to where he was in early 2017, a PGA Tour winner with an excellent opportunity to qualify for the Tour Championship. He missed out on a spot in the field at East Lake three years ago, ending up 38thin the final FedExCup standings, but has put himself in position to make a run at a top-30 finish this season.
It’s been several years since Swafford’s game and health have allowed him to play at the level he reached in 2017, and he addressed that in his winner’s press conference after Sunday’s final round.
“”It’s tough. I’m not gonna lie,” he began. “Being hurt out here is not fun. Especially, I got hurt the year after I did win. Some doubt, disbelief. I mean, it knocks you down.
“When I first came back after my rib injury, I finished third (in Hawaii) and started getting going and my foot just really started bothering me. I felt like I had just gotten confidence back and then that setback was there.”
After placing 38thon the FedExCup points list in 2017, Swafford dropped outside the top 150 each of the next three seasons, ending up 156, 162 and 167 in the standings. He was unable to play a full schedule in any of those three seasons, but is now back as a full-time player after his victory Sunday.
Swafford was on his game from the outset at the Puntacana Resort, opening with a 7-under 65 to share the first round lead. He carded eight birdies, including six in an 8-hole stretch midway through his round.
He followed with a 67 Friday morning, closing out his round with birdies on his last three holes to take a 2-shot lead after 36 holes.
Swafford began his round Saturday with six straight pars before going eagle-birdie on holes 7 and 8. But he returned to the par train after that, closing his round with 10 consecutive pars to drop two shots behind Adam Long, who also scored his first PGA Tour victory in the California desert.
While Long struggled in Sunday’s final round, shooting a 75 to drop to fifth place, Swafford quickly went to the front with a birdie at the par-4 third and an eagle at the par-5 fourth after a well-struck second shot. He also reached the par-5 seventh in two for a birdie and got to 5-under on his round with a birdie at the par-4 eighth.
Swafford was leading by three shots as he made the turn, but missed a chance to expand his lead when he lipped out a short birdie try at the par-3 11th. He was green high in two on the par-5 12th, but his first pitch up the slope rolled back to him before he followed with a deft fourth shot to save par.
The former Bulldog faced a similar pitch on the 13thafter his approach trickled over the back of the green, and he again failed to carry it over the crest of a ridge, leading to an untimely double bogey. Swafford hit one of his very few poor shots of the day at the 15th, missing his short iron approach to the right, resulting in a bogey that dropped him into a tie for the lead not long after he held a 4-stroke advantage.
Standing on the tee at the par-3 17thas one of three players sharing the lead, Swafford responded with one of the best shots of the day – a perfectly hit 6-iron into the wind that ended up about 12 feet from the hole.
Swafford holed the birdie putt to regain the lead, and preserved his victory with a clutch par putt on the 18thafter his first putt over a ridge came up about six feet short.
For the tournament, Swafford finished at 18-under 270 with scores of 65-67-69-69, one shot better than second-year PGA Tour player Tyler McCumber. Mackenzie Hughes, the 2017 RSM Classic champion, was third at 272 after dropping out of the three-way tie with a bogey at the 72ndhole.
“I felt great all day,” Swafford said after his round, “I hit a lot of quality shots, a lot of good putts. Just was kind of in my own little world, felt comfortable, felt great.”
The missed birdie putt on 11 stalled his momentum, and his miss-hit pitch on 12 could have led to a bogey, but he came back with what he described as “probably the best shot of the tournament for me” with his next pitch to save par. He was not particularly displeased with either of his chip shots on 13, but was unhappy with his “one bad shot all day,” the approach at 15.
“After that, I really just kind of gathered myself and made a lot of good aggressive swings at conservative targets.”
After just missing a birdie try at 16, he hit a 6-iron into the par-3 17thand said it was “a beauty. “ He left himself a testy par putt at 18, but again came through in the clutch, terming his par-saver “a great one.”
Although Swafford was born and raised in Tallahassee, he has been a fixture on the Georgia golf scene since he was in his teens. He won a Southeastern Junior Golf Tour event at the UGA course in Athens three years in a row, and also won the Dogwood Invitational at Druid Hills GC shortly before beginning his college career in Athens.
Swafford was an All-American selection his last three seasons at Georgia, and was teammates with fellow PGA Tour members Chris Kirk, Brendon Todd, Brian Harman, Harris English and Russell Henley. During his career in Athens, the Bulldogs finished second in the NCAA Championship twice and were third once.
After graduating from Georgia in 2011, Swafford qualified for the 2012 Web.com Tour, and won as a rookie in a familiar setting, shooting a course record 62 in the final round on the UGA course to win the Stadion Classic at UGA. Henley won the tournament the previous year while still a member of the Georgia golf team, and Todd won the last of four tour events played there the following season.
Swafford placed 27thand 41ston the money list in his two Web.com seasons, moving up to the PGA Tour with a strong showing in the 2013 Web.com Finals. He had to return to the Web.com Finals after finishing outside the top 125 as a PGA Tour rookie, but again played well enough to retain his status. He improved to 81 and 64 his next two seasons before winning the former Bob Hope Classic in early 2017, coming from two shots behind after 54 holes as he did last weekend.
Like several of his former UGA teammates, Swafford works with instructor Scott Hamilton of Cartersville Country Club.