Career redemption leads to emotion for NS Open winner
Martin Piller did his best Sunday to hold back his emotions and hold off a few relentless pursuers.
The 28-year-old former Texas A&M standout never relinquished his back-nine lead at the 25th News Sentinel Open presented by Pilot.
As for his emotions, well, those eventually won out after his final-round, 8-under 63 at Fox Den Country Club gave him a two-shot victory and ended a lengthy journey by Piller to regain the form that once put him on the PGA Tour.
His great friend and former college teammate Bronson Burgoon shot 8 under on his final 12 holes to push Piller to the brink of collapse, but Burgoon’s tournament course-record-tying 62 only landed him at 20-under 264.
Piller’s 22-under total was one off the tournament scoring record. With Burgoon’s round finished, Piller played the par-5 18th conservatively and two-putted from 35 feet for par to seal the victory — his first since winning twice on the Web.com Tour in 2010.
Piller slipped on a size 38 orange winner’s jacket, posed with the $99,000 winner’s check, hoisted his crystal trophy and then tried not to cry much while pondering the redemption of his career.
He lost his PGA Tour card after the 2011 season.
He recorded only two top-25 finishes on the Web.com Tour in 2012 with no top-10s.
Same story for 2013, too.
He entered the News Sentinel Open at No. 134 on the Web.com Tour money list. Now, he’s 29th. He needs to crack the top 25 by the end of the next tour stop in Oregon or play well in the subsequent four-event Web.com Tour finals to return to the PGA Tour.
“My short game literally disappeared a couple years ago,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’ll never be able to chip or pitch again around the green, because I don’t know how to fix this.’
“It became such a mental thing. If you can’t chip or pitch, you can’t play. That’s where I started doubting. I knew I had game in me, because I had won before out here. I didn’t know what the future held for me. When I tapped in there, it was like, ‘Wow. I did it. It happened.’
“It was really awesome.”
Piller let a win get away the week before and bogeyed his second hole Sunday at Fox Den. That dropped him to 13 under and handed Fabian Gomez the outright lead at that point, 14 under through four holes.
Piller didn’t wilt. When a 68-minute weather delay halted play at 3:32 p.m., Piller led at 19 under. He had fought back with a fury, birdieing Nos. 4, 5, 8 and 9. A 4-foot eagle try on the par-5 10th fell in and moved him to 19 under.
It also gave him a three-shot lead.
Burgoon closed that gap to one shot before the delay with a birdie at the par-4 14th for his fourth consecutive birdie — and sixth in a seven-hole stretch. Two-time News Sentinel Open champion Darron Stiles (64—266) was then just two back at 17 under.
Once play resumed, Piller, Burgoon and Stiles each birdied their first holes.
Burgoon and Stiles kept applying more heat. Stiles birdied the par-4 15th to make him 6 under on the back nine with three holes to go. Burgoon birdied seven holes on the back nine and needed an eighth at 18 to put more pressure on Piller and also set a single-round scoring record at 61.
A wayward drive led to a par, however. And Stiles plopped an approach shot in the water at 18 to exit the picture. He finished third at 18 under. Ryan Armour (65—267) was fourth and Vaughn Taylor (64—268) fifth.
“I’m thrilled,” said Burgoon of his finish. “That gets me in the (Web.com) playoffs. I think I’ll take next week off. I’ve been on the road now for nine straight weeks.”
Piller birdied par-4 15 (the tournament’s second-toughest hole per scoring average) and the par-3 16th to get to 22 under. That’s when he finally looked at a back-nine leaderboard.
“I honestly thought I had a four- or five-shot lead,” said Piller. “I started the day with the lead and I was 8 under. I thought, ‘I’ve got to have a nice cushion here.’ ”
That wasn’t the case, and Piller appreciated his win afterward even more, he said, knowing that he outlasted everyone’s best efforts.
And though the victory won’t technically be considered a wire-to-wire victory since he shared the first- and second-round leads, that mattered little.
“Whatever,” he said with a laugh. “As long as I’m on top at the end, that’s what matters most to me.”