By Nick Sabato/Courtesy Niagara Gazette
LEWISTON — When the final picture was taken and the last autograph signed, Carson Bacha exhaled a sigh of relief and threw his arms around his mother. Relief the grueling four-day tournament was over and relief he prevailed.
The top of the leaderboard during the final round of the 63rd Porter Cup on Saturday at Niagara Falls Country Club fluctuated, just as it did during the previous three days. Bacha never led the last round until walking toward the final hole.
Throughout the day, Bacha battled group-mates Garrett Engle and Dillon Stewart for the lead. Eventually Jack Boulger joined the fray and there was a four-way tie through 16 holes. Bacha’s day wasn’t flashy, but it was almost mistake-free.
The Auburn University junior-to-be didn’t bogey until a putt on the 18th green that would have won. But he received a second chance to bury a putt to knock off Engle to win the Cup in the first playoff since 2011. Both players shot 6-under-par 274 for the tournament.
“I told my mom coming up 17, ‘This is what I practice for,’” Bacha said. “When you’re in contention, that’s when the fun really begins. It was a fun day, holding my own, staying patient and waiting.”
Bacha, a native of York, Pennsylvania, came into the day two strokes behind Engle, who also held a four-stroke lead on Stewart. Two bogeys on the front nine by Engle allowed Stewart to catapult on top, grabbing the lead after birdies on six of the first 11 holes.
Stewart, a Fort Collins, Colorado native who plays for Oklahoma State, scored a birdie on the 11th hole for the third consecutive day after recording a bogey in the first round. But just as he trended toward the favorite, back-to-back bogeys put him two strokes behind Bacha for the lead going into the final hole.
He nearly sank a deep putt to advance to the playoff, only for the ball to hang on the rim of the cup, finishing third at 5-under-par 275.
“I knew I had to come out strong on the front nine to put some pressure on them and I did just that,” said Stewart, who faced Oklahoma’s Engle in the Big XII. “I gave it a run until the last putt. It just fell short and that’s how the day went. I’m not disappointed. I’m happy with my week.”
Just like Stewart, Engle rallied after shooting 3-over-par in the first round and tied a tournament-best by shooting a 64 in the third round. A bogey on 15 nearly set him back, but a superb drive and putt allowed him to force a playoff on the Bacha miscue.
After Bacha’s drive in the playoff landed 15 feet from the hole, Engle tried to duplicate the shot, but it sailed past the green and across the street. Throughout the day, players frequently landed in the bunker out of fear of pushing the ball and Engle finally sent one over.
“Long is dead,” Engle said. “I just saw Carson in there close and I was like, ‘I want to do something special here.’ It just didn’t work out.”
Bacha’s ability to stay out of trouble not only was his strength during the final round, but throughout the tournament. He never shot below par during a round, and while he only had three birdies Saturday, he finished 2 under for the round.
Even when his putt landed in a strong position and Engle took a stroke penalty instead of trying to play his errant shot, he wasn’t comfortable declaring victory until the ball went into the cup.
“I knew that putt still had a lot of break in it,” Bacha said. “It was unfortunate Garrett hit that shot, but I definitely think the shot I hit put a little more pressure on him. That was probably one of the best iron shots I hit all day. It was rewarding to hit that shot under pressure.”
Boulger bogeyed the final two holes to finish fourth at 4 under, while Mississauga, Ontario’s Matthew Anderson had a torrid finish, registering birdies on seven of the last 12 holes to shoot a 64 on the day and finished fifth at 3 under.
Former champion and last year’s runner-up Garrett Rank tied for sixth. Florida resident Noah Kent was tied for the lead through nine, but two double-bogeys and a bogey pushed him to 11th overall.
Sanborn’s Anthony Delisanti tied Shubham Jaglan and Cade Russell for 15th, all shooting 2-over-par 282.