During Sepp Straka’s junior season at the University of Georgia in 2013-14, he struggled so mightily that he failed to qualify for the men’s golf team. A bad case of the chipping yips forced him to take a redshirt season. Making the PGA Tour, let alone becoming a tournament winner, seemed a longshot at best.
“I wasn’t very good,” Straka said. “I never really thought I’d make it as a pro. It was more of a dream.”
That dream became reality and in late February of 2022, Straka played inspired golf, erasing a five-stroke deficit entering the final round with three birdies on his last five holes to win his maiden Tour title at the Honda Classic. In doing so, Straka became the first Austrian to win on the PGA Tour.
“You try to believe that you can win, but until you actually get it done, it really is hard to believe,” he said.
Believe it or not, this story begins at Golf Club Gut Altentann, 10 minutes outside Salzburg in the heart of the Salzburg Alps, where Straka’s mother, Mary, ran the golf shop at the Jack Nicklaus designed course. Later, she took a similar role at Fontana Golf and Country Club, south of Vienna on the edge of the spa town of Baden. This is where Straka learned the game from his father, Peter, and at age 11, Straka and his fraternal twin brother – Sam is 2 minutes older – participated in a golf summer camp. Until this time, Straka was devoted to soccer, starring as a goalie, but after the camp Sam made the executive decision that the brothers were going to take golf seriously going forward.
The Straka family moved from Austria to the U.S. to be closer to his mom’s side of the family in Valdosta, Georgia, when he was 14. Georgia coach Chris Haack signed the brothers as a package deal. Finally, in Straka’s senior season, after overcoming a 7-8 month stretch during which he felt as though he couldn’t hit a green, Sepp’s game clicked into a higher gear and he turned pro in 2016. Yet he was so discouraged by his poor start to the 2018 Korn Ferry Tour season that he had already registered for Q-School again in July. Ye of little faith, Straka won the following week at the KC Golf Classic and secured his PGA Tour card for the 2018-19 with a T-3 at the KFT Tour Championship.
Straka qualified for the FedEx Cup Playoffs in each of his first three years on Tour but his claim to fame as a pro probably was being the first-round leader at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. He realized his practice lacked structure and, in an effort to make the leap to becoming one of the top 50 players, he enlisted the help of noted swing instructor John Tillery in the Fall of 2021. Straka was ranked 213th in the world at the start of 2022.
“I had to spoon feed him when we first started because I didn’t want to shock the system,” Tillery said. “Every little bit he gets better, I get to give him a little more.”
Sepp Straka hits out of the gallery on the 14th holeduring the third round of the 2019 U.S. Open. (Photo: Michael Madrid/USA TODAY Sports)
Straka has progressed quickly, improving to 83rd in the world with the win at Honda and with a pair of playoff losses at the FedEx St. Jude Championship in August and the Sanderson Farms Championship in October, he’s shot up to a career-best of No. 25 as of January 15, 2023.
Back at the 2022 Honda Classic, Tillery sensed a breakthrough was imminent. Every practice session that week on the range with his broad-shouldered pupil, who is affectionately called Ox, was better than the one before it.
“The last session before I left was a joke,” Tillery said. “I told him, ‘You need to change your perspective a little bit and realize how good you are.’ I said, ‘I’ve done this a long time, worked with a lot of great players and no one in this field is playing is better than you. Nobody can beat you this week unless you let them.’ ”
Straka opened with a ho-hum 1-over-par 71 at PGA National, which turned out to be the highest start by a Tour winner since Rory McIlroy at the 2021 Wells Fargo Championship (72). But Straka surged into contention by shooting a tournament-low 6-under 64 on Friday.
“I felt pretty confident after that one,” he said. “The game felt really good.”
Straka tacked on a 69 on Saturday. However, the final round began with American Daniel Berger holding a five-stroke advantage, matching the largest 54-hole lead in the tournament’s 49-year history. Straka could’ve been discouraged about the ground he needed to make up on Berger, but he was not.
“I knew I had a chance,” he said. “It’s kind of a crazy golf course with water everywhere. So, five shots are a lot if there’s a bunch of guys ahead of you, but there was only Daniel. I knew if I could shoot a low one, I could still have a good chance.”
It didn’t hurt that Berger, the hometown hero, faltered with four bogeys and a double bogey to shoot 74 and slipped to fourth place.
“Just a poor round. It can happen at any time,” Berger said. “I’m not going to dwell on it too much.”
Straka got off to an inauspicious start of his own, making a 3-putt bogey, including missing from 2 feet for par. But he bounced back with birdies at the second and third and made up for a bogey at the eighth with a birdie at the ninth.
“I just kept my head down and played some good golf,” he said.
No shot was bigger than fading his approach from 176 yards to a hole tucked in the back right corner of the green at the par-4 14th. The ball ended up inside 10 feet and Straka sank the birdie putt to leapfrog Berger into second, one stroke behind leader Shane Lowry. Straka wasn’t done yet. He tied Lowry with a 14-foot birdie at 16 and then made the biggest birdie of his life at 18 to earn his first Tour title in his 95thcareer start.
Sepp Straka of Austria reacts to his putt on the 18th green during the final round of The Honda Classic at PGA National Resort And Spa on February 27, 2022 ,in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Straka hammered a 334-yard drive into the fairway at the par-5 finishing hole before the skies opened up. He had 199 yards to the hole and due to the downpour he decided to take an extra club. Straka credits Tillery with improving his iron play more than any other part of his game and it came in handy in crunch time. He had been the best ball-striker all week, ranking first in Strokes Gained: Off the tee and fourth in average approach, and in the biggest moment drew a 6-iron that stopped 46 feet from the hole.
Two putts from there and he signed for a final-round 4-under 66 and a 72-hole total of 10-under 270 at PGA National’s Champion Course.
All that was left for Straka to do was to wait and see if he had done enough. Lowry still could catch him with a birdie of his own at the last, but he had to play the hole in the worst conditions and left himself a 43-foot putt to tie that missed short right.
“I felt I played good enough golf to win the tournament,” said Lowry, who was seeking his first win since the 2019 British Open. “That bad weather came in just as we were hitting our tee shot on 18, which was as bad a break as I’ve got in a while.”
Straka, with a Diet Coke in his right hand, celebrated with his mother and wife, Paige, who had driven to South Florida on Sunday morning. Keith Mitchell, Chris Kirk and Brendon Todd were among his college teammates who waited to congratulate him on becoming the 11th Georgia Bulldog product to win on the PGA Tour. Straka went on to qualify for the Tour Championship and finish seventh in last year’s FedEx Cup standings.
The Honda trophy is displayed proudly in a cabinet in his home office. He’s come a long way from battling the yips and needing a redshirt year in college. Now he’s thinking about making the European Ryder Cup team and adding more trophies to his cabinet. But he’ll never forget his first win at the Honda when he stepped up and didn’t let a sudden rainstorm keep him from believing that it was his time to shine.