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Vegas embraces McInerney: 'It meant the world to me'

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LAS VEGAS – Short of him walking away with the trophy, it is hard to imagine a better scene for A.J. McInerney than the one that played out Sunday at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

In the field on a sponsor exemption, McInerney – the Las Vegas native who escaped the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival on Oct. 1 – poured in a 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th green to close out a back-nine 30, a final-round 67, and his first PGA Tour event.

When the putt dropped, McInerney threw his arms in the air as the crowd around the final green responded with the largest roar of the week. Before walking off the course, he removed his hat, put his hands back in the air and applauded the galleries who have encouraged him for the last four days with shouts of “Let’s go, A.J.” and “Vegas Strong.”

“It was so much fun,” McInerney said. “Seeing Vegas come out strong today, it was amazing.”

When he emerged from the scoring trailer, he elicited another ovation from fans who had crowded around a fence to cheer him on one last time. He threw autographed balls to kids in the crowd, and when he stopped, the expression on his face changed, as if a switch had just flipped in his head. Suddenly, he looked tense.

Every time he was asked this week – and he was asked pretty much every day – McInerney swore that even if he were to finish in top 10, he would not accept the exemption into next week’s OHL Classic at Mayakoba. That’s because he is scheduled to play in the second stage of Tour Qualifying School, starting Tuesday at TPC Craig Ranch in Texas, where he’ll attempt to regain his status after finishing 97th last year on the money list.

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But when he exited scoring on Sunday, tied for 11th, one shot away from an invite, his certainty had left him. As he scrambled to do interviews and greae well-wishers, all he really wanted to do was call his agent. McInerney knew he had 30 minutes after the end of the tournament to make a decision, assuming he had to make one.

And about an hour after he finished, a little past 4 p.m. PT, as Patrick Cantlay, Alex Cejka and Whee Kim were tangled up in a playoff, McInerney was still on the back porch at TPC Summerlin, surrounded by friends and family. J.J. Spaun’s double bogey-double bogey finish had suddenly moved McInerney from T-11 to T-10. Unlike before, this was no longer a hypothetical. He was now sitting on the invite to Mayakoba.

He talked on the phone and texted back and forth with his agent about what he should do. He was still booked on a Southwest Airlines flight to Dallas that was set to take off at 6:30 p.m. After ending a call, McInerney pulled aside Beau Hossler, as Hossler was leaving the scoring area, and solicited his advice. The two talked it over.

“I told him to go to second stage,” said Hossler, who graduated from the Tour after playing a smattering of PGA Tour events without status last year. “He could go tear it up in Mayakoba, but if he doesn’t, then he’s stuck. I told him to go to second stage.”

After another phone call, McInerney made his decision. He was, as he originally intended, turning down Mayakoba to head back to Q-School.

“I don’t know. I think that’s the best decision,” he said, still talking over the scenarios that would need to play out for him earn to special temporary status on the PGA Tour. “But if I don’t play well in Mayakoba, then I don’t have anything next year. I’m going to second stage to at least have a job next year.”

Reminded how many times this week he had insisted that he wouldn’t entertain a Mayakoba invite, McInerney didn’t even need to hear the end of the question.

“Yeah, well, until it’s a reality, you don’t really think it fully through,” he answered. “But yeah, I’m still going to stick to that. That was my gameplan to start with, and I’m just going to take care of business in second stage.”

And so, the deliberation was over. The dream week – after the nightmare he went through just one month ago – had officially come to an end.

Asked a couple of hours earlier to sum up the emotion of his week, McInerney thought back to when he first learned he was going to make his PGA Tour debut.

“Oh man, it started a couple Saturdays ago when I got the phone call [to play]. To come out here and kind of prove that I can play a little, I was proud of that.

“Then to be able to shoot 30 on the back side today, it was just kind of a storybook ending, I guess. It’s just great to see Las Vegas out here supporting this great event. For me to just be a small piece of that, and get these fans and this crowd going, it meant the world to me.”