SNOQUALMIE — The unheralded, underachieving or unfortunate professional golfer seems to fare and fit in well at the Boeing Classic.
The tournament welcomed another unlikely winner to its strange history Sunday.
Illinois native John Riegger, a long hitter who has played on the PGA Tour, European Tour and Web.com Tour, is a guy long on talent, but short on accomplishments.
His close friends have told him he should have won multiple times on the PGA Tour — but he never really contended in 224 career starts, most on the developmental Web.com Tour.
But there he was Sunday — in the lead, and in the final group at TPC Snoqualmie Ridge with 50-something stars Tom Lehman and Bernhard Langer, both former major championship winners.
After losing his lead heading into the back nine, the 50-year-old ran off four back-nine birdies and improbably completed his first Champions Tour triumph with a 4-under-par 68 in the final round.
Riegger finished with a 15-under 201 total. John Cook (66) finished two strokes back at 203 to place a solo second, and Seattle native Fred Couples (66) was in third alone at 11-under 205.
Riegger became the first player to make the Boeing Classic his
inaugural Champions Tour victory — coming in just his fifth start. He also became the fifth first-time winner this season, tying a record for the 50-and-over circuit set in 1989 and matched in 1999 and 2007.
Needing no worse than a three-putt from 20 feet on the final hole, Riegger’s putt tracked perfectly and dropped into the hole. Almost in disbelief, he raised his hands before caddie Pete Jordan joined him for a brief celebration.
“It has been a long, crazy career. I’ve been all over the world, and had a little success,” Riegger said. “My game has actually gotten better over the last couple years. I am so thankful to be in the position that I am in right now. To get this win today will go down as the best win of my career.”
The Boeing Classic debuted in 2005 with David Eger as its first winner. Two years later, unknown Canadian Ray Stewart was the overnight leader heading into the final round, and he finished one stroke out of a seven-man playoff, won by Denis Watson.
And last year, Tom Jenkins entered the final round with a one-stroke advantage, only to falter with a 78.
Langer, the 2010 Boeing Classic champion, erased Riegger’s cushion by canning a 20-foot birdie putt at the ninth hole to grab the lead heading to the back nine.
Playing ahead of the final group, Cook, Couples and Bobby Clampett were all suddenly part of the fray.
“I started looking at the way things were going, nobody was really doing anything,” Cook said. “Everyone had kind of stalled. It looked like if I could get this to 12 under — (it) would be a good number.”
Loose shots led to a surprising back-nine unraveling by Langer, who bogeyed the 11th, 13th and 15th holes.
And what Riegger was misfiring on early — his wedge game — suddenly sharpened up. He hit a sand wedge approach to within tap-in distance at No. 11 to regain the lead at 12-under.
At No. 15, a par 5, his low-running pitch shot from 40 yards gave him an uphill look at birdie, and he made the 12-foot putt.
“I was very calm and composed all day long,” Riegger said. “When you are playing with great players like Tom and Bernhard, they are not going to be intimidated by John Riegger … stepping on the first tee. I just went about my own business.”
With Cook in the clubhouse at 13-under par after a finishing birdie, Riegger broke the tie by making a 15-footer at No. 16 for birdie.
“A lot of winners (were) behind him,” Cook said. “For him to come out and not have that much experience, and to do what he did down the stretch is very commendable.”
A two-time winner on the Web.com Tour, Riegger said he is playing better golf now than he did in his 20s and 30s. A great deal of his improvement can be attributed to better health — he endured two shoulder surgeries, a knee surgery and hand surgery while on the PGA Tour.
But for a man who barely got onto the Champions Tour by surviving a sudden-death playoff at qualifying school in November, Riegger thinks he can be a real force on this tour.
“Now that I know I am going to be playing every week, there are some good things to come for me,” Riegger said. “I’ve been working really hard, and it showed today.”
Couples (66) shared the low round of the day with Cook with his best score in four Boeing appearances. He finished with birdies at Nos. 16-18. “We talked about it the whole week, it would be nice to shoot a low round on this course. I think I’ve had a few pretty good ones, and have always been fairly consistent,” Couples said. “That was about as good as I could have shot.” … Rick Fehr, a Nathan Hale High of Seattle grad, was at 16-over 232 for 79th place. … The event drew 86,000 fans for the week, an event record. … Boeing extended its commitment as the tournament sponsor through 2016.
Champions Tour Boeing Classic
At TPC Snoqualmie Ridge
Yardage: 7,183; Par: 72
John Riegger 69-64-68—201
Fred Couples 69-70-66—205
Jay Don Blake72-67-71—210
Tom Kite76-66-73—215Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 todd.milles@ thenewstribune.com