Grillo overcomes short miss to win season opener


NAPA, Calif. – The 3-footer that Emiliano Grillo missed on the 18th green Sunday at Silverado wasn’t going to haunt him. Not this time.

Seven months ago, he whiffed a short putt on the 72nd hole in Puerto Rico that cost him a career-altering title. He eventually lost in a playoff.

“I had nightmares for a week,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep. It was one of the most painful times of my life.”

There wouldn’t be a repeat at the Frys.

After missing what appeared to be a certain birdie, and after Kevin Na made a mess of the second playoff hole, Grillo wedged to 10 feet and poured in the putt to win the PGA Tour’s season-opening event. It was his first start as a Tour member.

The latest success story in a high school class of 2011 that has also produced Jordan Spieth, Daniel Berger, Justin Thomas and Patrick Rodgers, Grillo, 23, is expected to jump inside the top 40 in the world rankings. He is also exempt into the Masters.

“They said the word ‘Masters’ twice today,” he said. 

Then he pointed at his smile. 

“You see this?” he said. “That is what I’m going to do every single time you say ‘Masters.’” Open: Articles, photos and videos

Two weeks after winning the Tour finale with an uphill, right-to-left-breaking 25-footer, Grillo holed virtually the same putt on the final hole of regulation.

Twenty minutes later, Na matched Grillo’s 15-under 273 total with a cold-blooded 6-footer of his own, but he never gave himself a realistic shot to win in the playoff.

In fact, he was fortunate to even get a second chance.

With the sun quickly disappearing behind the mountains, Grillo appeared to be in position to end the playoff early. He nestled his pitch shot on the par-5 18th to 3 feet, but he hammered his putt on the left edge and lipped out – eerily similar to the putt he missed earlier this year in Puerto Rico.

“I hit this one good,” he said. “I don’t know what happened.”

He had only a few minutes to recover.

“My caddie asked me if I was 100 percent and I said, ‘Yes. I want to win it,’” Grillo said. “You know how they say it: Third time is a charm.”

Still alive, Na was in ideal position on the second playoff hole, 274 yards away on the right side of the fairway. With the ball slightly above his feet, Na opted for a driver off the tight turf, a shot that he “hit perfect” five or six times this week.

This one was far from perfect. He dropkicked the shot and sent his ball screaming into the left rough, behind a tree, about 100 yards out.

“I was a little shocked by that,” Grillo said.

From there, Na somehow wedged through a small opening in the trees, but his ball skittered through the back of the green. His fourth shot was too aggressive, and he missed the 12-foot comebacker for par.

It was his third career overtime loss.

“You would think I would get my share,” Na said afterward, “but I certainly haven’t gotten my share of wins for how good I’ve played for the last seven or eight years. But you know what? It’s coming. It’s coming.”

Grillo and Na’s playoff miscues were but a sampling of a sloppy first Sunday of the season, when nine players had at least a share of the lead. 

There was a long line of players who rued their missed opportunities:

• Looking to go wire to wire, Brendan Steele overcame a rocky start and was tied for the lead when he made five bogeys in a six-hole stretch on the back nine, dropping all the way to a share of 17th.

• Journeyman Jason Bohn had the outright lead when he butchered the par-5 16th, chunking his third shot and making bogey.

Justin Rose, the second-highest ranked player in the field (No. 7), pulled within a shot of the lead but came home in 38.

• And Justin Thomas, who made a compelling case for top rookie honors last season, shot 69 in the final round but failed to make birdie on the last five holes, a stretch that includes two par 5s and a short par 4.

Though disappointed with the finish, Thomas still stuck around the scorer’s trailer to congratulate Grillo on his 72nd-hole birdie.

“He’s really, really good,” Thomas said, “and this isn’t going to be the last time he’s in contention.”

Indeed, it’s been a steady rise to prominence for Grillo, who trained during high school at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

A fixture on AJGA and amateur leaderboards, he has battled the likes of Spieth, Thomas and Rodgers since they were 14. Thomas joked that his mom was Grillo’s mode of transportation during those tournaments, waking at 6 a.m. just to get Grillo to the course for an early tee time.

Thomas briefly tried to recruit Grillo to join him at Alabama, and Spieth tried the same trick at Texas. But the Argentine had no desire to earn a college degree. He wanted to major in golf.

After turning pro at 18, Grillo headed overseas to climb his way up the world rankings. He combined for six top-10s on the European Tour in 2012-13, then broke out at the ’14 Dubai Desert Classic, where he finished second after a closing 66.

In five starts this past season on Tour, he lost the playoff in Puerto Rico and also recorded a pair of top-25s. That was enough to get him inside the top 200 in FedEx Cup points, which sent him to the Tour Finals. He finished in the top 10 in three of the four make-or-break events, including the narrow victory in the finale.

“He hits it really, really good,” Thomas said, “and he’s not scared. He’s going to go out and get it done. If you want to win golf tournaments, you have to be able to do stuff like that on the last hole.”

Except Grillo’s week at the Frys figured to be remembered for a scary incident Saturday, when he hit into the group ahead on the drivable 17th. Little did he know the player he nearly plunked with his drive was Rory McIlroy.

Grillo said that he never got an opportunity to apologize for the incident, that he wanted to jog across a couple of fairways Sunday just to tell McIlroy that he was sorry.

“I didn’t want to be the guy who almost hit Rory McIlroy this week,” he said. “I wanted everybody to know me because I have the trophy.”