Tuesday, July 27, 2021

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Rafael Campos closing in on ‘dream’ win at Puerto Rico Open

RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico – Rafael Campos missed a 1-foot putt for par at the final hole Saturday at the Puerto Rico Open – there is no typo there – but he wasn’t about to let it ruin what had been a magnificent day. Sunday for him could be even bigger. 

Campos, 32, is a native son of Puerto Rico and the only current PGA TOUR professional from the island. He grew up in Guaynaba, only a 40-minute drive from Grand Reserve Country Club. This is the 13th edition of the tournament, and only a torn back muscle in 2020 kept Campos from competing in all of them. Twice he has finished in the top 10 here (2016 and 2017), performances that filled his country with pride. This week could be next-level stuff. 

Saturday, Campos shot a 5-under 67, the lone blemish of his day being the short miss for par at the par-5 18th. “I got over it and just kind of blanked out,” Campos said, “which is frustrating, because I wanted to be bogey-free today.”

He is at 14-under 202, sharing the 54-hole lead with Grayson Murray, who birdied half the holes that he played on Saturday and posted 65, the day’s low round. South Africa’s Branden Grace (68) and Australia’s Cameron Percy (67), who loves the wind, will start Sunday one stroke behind the leaders. Andrew Putnam (67), Nelson Ledesma (68) and 36-hole leader Brandon Wu (71) are two shots back.

Murray, 27, has won before, capturing an opposite-field event in 2017 (Barbasol Championship), and said he certainly could utilize the two-year TOUR exemption that comes with winning. Percy, who birdied four consecutive holes on the front nine, is 46 and never has won on the PGA TOUR. He was part of a three-man playoff in Las Vegas in 2010 that Jonathan Byrd settled with an ace. (Ouch!) Percy thought he might be back with a shot soon after, but he hasn’t contended nearly as frequently as he would like. He splits his time between the PGA TOUR and Korn Ferry Tour.

Campos made it clear he didn’t want to think ahead to Sunday, making sure not to get ahead of himself. But winning his first PGA TOUR title on his own island? That would be a life-changer. Max Homa had a neighborhood near Los Angeles rooting for him to win The Genesis Invitational at Riviera last weekend; Campos has an entire island standing behind him.

Though this week’s galleries are lighter due to Covid-19 restrictions, a few dozen VIPs walked along with Campos on Saturday, a gallery that included his mother, his wife and plenty of friends. Campos was asked how long the party might last if he is the man holding the trophy late Sunday. The Puerto Rico Open never has had a Latino winner, let alone a native son as its champion.

“Some years,” Campos said candidly. “I know they’ve been waiting for this for 13 years. Obviously it’s a dream of mine to hold this trophy, especially here in my home, where I live. For me, hopefully it’s a one-day celebration and I get back to work. But I know they’ll be ecstatic, and hopefully tomorrow I at least give myself a chance on those last few holes.”  

Three brief showers drenched the field with whipping rains in the afternoon, leading to a stop-and-start cadence. Campos gave fishing tips to a beach angler behind 12 during one delay. Murray was first to post 14-under-par. He was 7 under through 14 holes, bogeyed the par-4 17th, but finished strongly with a nice up-and-down from in front of the green at the par-5 closing hole.

Murray was so wiped out after a stretch of seven weeks on the road that last week at home in North Carolina he said he touched a golf club for only 30 minutes – enough to have a lesson with his longtime teacher, Ted Kiegiel, pro at Carolina Country Club. (Instructor Scott Hamilton also works with Murray.) Murray and Kiegiel have worked together since Murray was 9 years old. Sunday, Murray will call upon everything he has ever learned.

“I need to stay confident,” Murray said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a situation like this, but I’m not afraid of the moment. At the end of the day, you’ve still got to play good golf, no matter who is chasing you, or who I’m chasing.

“Sunday pressure is always a little different. There’s some good players at the top, and it’ll be a good fight out there.”

Campos had some wild moments on his back nine. He made two early birdies, had an incredible up-and-down to save par at the par-4 14th, almost drove the ball out of bounds at 15 and stiffed an approach at 17 to be the first to 15-under. At the 17th, he faced a tricky downwind shot from 106 yards, flighted it down and watched the ball skip in tight. (“I really felt I was due for a good swing,” he said.) Campos has Erick Morales, a good friend whom he considers an older brother, on his bag this week, and said he will lean on Morales to keep him focused in the final round. There is much at stake.

Even if, by dinner time on Saturday, Campos didn’t want to think about it. Sunday could prove to be the day of his lifetime.

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