Even with most of the professional golf world still on hiatus, veteran Alex Cejka continues to rack up trophies.
The 49-year-old German has won four times on the European Tour and has earned more than $12 million in his PGA Tour career, including a win at the 2015 Puerto Rico Open. But with those circuits frozen by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cejka has stayed busy by making the rounds on the Arizona mini-tour circuit. The latest highlight came Sunday when he made a furious final-round rally to capture the 54-hole Parker Open in Parker, Ariz.
Cejka was trailing by six shots with six holes remaining, but played the next four holes in 6 under including a hole-in-one on the 198-yard 14th and an eagle on No. 16. A closing 68 got him into a playoff with Ed Olson at 14 under, which Cejka won on the first extra hole.
The event is not affiliated with any local tour or developmental circuit. Instead it's the brainchild of Steve Benton, the director at Emerald Canyon Golf Course in Parker, which winds along the Colorado River near the Arizona-California border. Benton started the event 24 years ago with a field of 13 professionals. This week, even in the midst of a global health crisis, he had a 78-player field with an entry fee of $395 per player.
The tournament's purse was $42,000, of which Cejka took $7,000 for the victory. He also pocketed $5,000 for winning an Outlaw Tour event earlier this month. According to Benton, Cejka has a home in Bullhead City, about 90 minutes from Parker, and brought some family members with him for the weekend.
"Somehow he heard about the event," Benton said. "In fact, he said he was thinking about coming back next year to defend. I know $7,000 is nothing compared to the money he has played for in the past, but he said he and his family had a really good time."
Benton said he considered postponing the event given the coronavirus outbreak, but opted to continue with several adjustments that have become commonplace in recent weeks - among them no rakes in bunkers, only one player per cart and foam noodles in cups to keep balls from reaching the bottom of the hole.
Despite these measures, Benton admitted that some on-course activity concerned him given the current state and federal guidelines aimed at slowing the virus' spread.
"To be really honest with you, you would have thought there wasn't even a virus going around. I mean, I saw people shaking hands, standing close to each other," he said. "Seemed kind of casual out there."
While Arizona remains under a stay-at-home measure, governor Doug Ducey exempted golf as an "essential service" last month, thereby paving the way for small-scale tournament play to continue. As of April 26, La Paz County, which includes Parker, has a total of seven confirmed coronavirus cases, including one death.
Benton spoke to players about adhering to current guidelines during the event, and he explained that participants had a tendency to gather in the scoring room despite the tournament's effort to score one person at a time.
"We were trying to get people to keep their distance. I think they just got caught up in the moment," he said. "They were excited they were here, they were excited they were playing. Maybe for a little bit, in their mind, they wanted to forget that there even was a virus. Go have some fun and almost put it out of your mind."