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Frittelli wins Deere for last spot in British

Genesis Open, Dylan Frittelli
Dylan Frittelli (RSA) during the third round played of the Genesis Open, Riviera Country Club, Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, USA.

Dylan Frittelli was the surprise of the John Deere Classic on Sunday, and his victory in the PGA Tour event sent him on his way to this week’s British Open

SILVIS, Ill. – Dylan Frittelli was the surprise of the John Deere Classic on Sunday, and his victory in the PGA Tour event sent him on his way to this week’s British Open.

Frittelli was a relatively unknown player before securing his first U.S. pro victory, but he won’t need any introductions across the Atlantic when golf’s top stars gather at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.

“I played in the last two British Opens and the last Irish Open that was played there [in 2012],’’ Frittelli said. He was one of 14 players boarding the tournament’s charter jet to Royal Portrush on Sunday night.

There was more interest at TPC Deere Run, the JDC’s tournament site for the past 20 years, about Frittelli’s connection with Jordan Spieth. Spieth has been one of the most popular champions in the history of the John Deere Classic. He won the tournament in 2013 when he was just 19 and took the title again two years later.

Spieth has not been back, but Frittelli stirred memories of him. They were teammates on Texas’ 2012 NCAA championship team. Frittelli used a final-round 64 to claim a two-stroke victory in the 49th playing of the JDC (scores).

Frittelli, 29, is a very different player than Spieth. Spieth grew up in Dallas, and Frittelli was raised in South Africa. Spieth still makes his home in Dallas, and Frittelli lives in Austin. They have lunch together frequently, play some practice rounds together and are “still good buddies,” Frittelli said. But Frittelli sought no advice from Spieth, a three-time major champion, during preparations for his first JDC.

They do share a similar memory, though. As a college senior, Frittelli rolled in the winning putt, a 30-footer for birdie at Riviera, in the NCAA final. Spieth was a freshman on that team and turned professional after the fall semester of his sophomore season. He made the John Deere Classic his first PGA Tour victory, and Frittelli did likewise. Frittelli said they’re “still good buddies.’’

“Jordan came in as the most highly recruited player,” Frittelli said. “He had a chip on his shoulder. We pushed each other. I beat him in more tournaments than he beat me at the college level.’’

As touring pros, that hasn’t been the case. Frittelli, a two-time winner on the European Tour, has divided time between the European and PGA tours and was worried about retaining membership in both. Sunday’s victory quelled that concern, but Frittelli concedes that he’s no Spieth – at least not yet.

“Jordan is the antithesis of me,’’ Frittelli said. “He has a burning desire to win at everything. I’d beat him four straight games in ping-pong, and he’d insist we play another one. I’m more methodical and thoughtful than him.’’

The connection with Spieth notwithstanding, Frittelli stands out among his touring-pro colleagues.

Frittelli is not afraid to wear long sleeves in steamy conditions, as he did in Sunday’s 90-degree-plus conditions. He disdains contact lenses, and wears prescription glasses instead. He also prefers to leave the flagstick in on almost every putt.

Until Sunday, Frittelli’s unique status wasn’t so noticeable. His best finish on the PGA Tour this season had been a tie for 18th. He was sweating out his future.

“I was looking at post-season possibly playing the Web [now Korn Ferry Tour] playoffs and trying to figure out a schedule. It was really stressing me out. Now, I can sit back and have a clear mind and can play for another 2½ years.’’

The John Deere Classic was its usual wide-open affair on Sunday, with 11 players within three shots of 54-hole co-leaders Andrew Landry and Cameron Tringale. Frittelli was two shots back, in a tie for fifth.

Russell Henley made the only serious move among the players who teed off early – and his was an eye-catcher. Henley posted a sizzling 10-under 61 – the best round of the week – as Frittelli was walking to the No. 10 tee. Henley and Frittelli were tied for the lead at that time, and Frittelli took the lead – for good, as it turned out – with a birdie at No. 11.

His work wasn’t done, though. He drove the green on the 361-yard par-4 14th but three-putted from 43 feet. He missed a 29½-foot birdie putt at No. 15, and the one-stroke lead was maintained through the par-3 16th, where Frittelli two-putted from 43 feet for another par.

Frittelli expanded his lead by two shots when he got up and down from a greenside bunker for birdie at No. 17, holing an 11-footer. He said that he didn’t look at a leaderboard until he was lining up that putt.

He sealed the victory with a two-putt par at the par-4 18th to finish at 21-under 263, two strokes ahead of Henley and three in front of Landry.

As for this week’s British Open, the JDC jet isn’t bringing as many players at it once did. In 2010, a second plane was needed to get the traveling party – caddies, family members, agents – to St. Andrews. Sunday’s flight was only about half-full.

Besides Frittelli, the players making the trip were Stewart Cink, Austin Connelly, Joel Dahmen, Lucas Glover, Brian Harman, Sungjae Im, Zach Johnson, Si Woo Kim, Nate Lashley, Joaquin Niemann, Ryan Palmer, Doc Redman and Kyle Stanley.

Len Ziehm spent 41 years as the golf columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times before his retirement in 2010. He is a golf columnist for the Daily Herald chain of Chicago suburban newspapers and for Chicagoland Golf, a monthly publication. He also contributes to Chicago District Golfer, the Illinois PGA website and operates lenziehmongolf.com. Email: lenziehm@gmail.com; Twitter: @ZiehmLen