Fuhrer Invitational: Winner earns largest career payday

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Eric Cole said he learned the technical aspects of his game from his father, Bobby, one of South Africa’s leading golf exports along with Gary Player, Nick Price and Ernie Els. He said he learned the simpler parts of the game from his mother, former LPGA Tour star Laura Baugh.

Cole applied both in winning the $200,000 Frank B. Fuhrer Invitational and cashing the biggest check of his professional career, but not before mixing in some nervous elements.

“You got to give all the people some kind of drama on the last hole,” Cole said. “I went from no stress at all to max stress. That was no fun.”

Carrying a three-shot lead to the final hole at Pittsburgh Field Club — a 215-yard par 3 — Cole injected all the drama he didn’t want to endure when he missed the green right with his 5-iron tee shot, pitched 15 feet past the hole and nervously three-putted for a double bogey.

It was still enough for Cole, 26, to finish at 5-under 275 and win the three-day, four-round invitational by one shot over defending champ Mike Van Sickle. Cole, a mini-tour player who lives in Jupiter, Fla., collected the $40,000 first prize — more than double the previous largest check he has won at a tournament.

“Everything happened so quick,” Cole said. “I thought it was a right-edge putt [for bogey], and all of a sudden I had a 2-footer for a one-shot win.”

It was one of the few mistakes for Cole, who shot a final-round 70 despite the final-hole mishap. He made only one other bogey — at the par-4 ninth when he hit his approach in the greenside bunker — and took control of the tournament with back-to-back birdies at Nos. 15 and 16.

That allowed him to overtake Van Sickle, a mini-tour professional from Gibsonia, who bogeyed the final two holes and was done in by a wayward putter.

Christo Greyling, a mini-tour player from Augusta, Ga., who was tied with Cole after 54 holes, shot 72 and finished at 3-under 277.

“Just winning that amount of money … I think my biggest check before this was $19,000,” Cole said. “This is getting to be a well-known tournament. I remember four years ago, there weren’t quite as many good players in the field. That’s the nice part — it will help to build my confidence.”

It also could help shape his career. Cole has exempt status on the European Challenge Tour — Europe’s version of the Web.com Tour — but he has not played in any events because of the expense of traveling.

That could change after winning the first prize — one of the largest of its kind for club professionals and mini-tour players in the country.

“I can go over to Europe a little more,” Cole said. “That could change my career.”

It was a disappointing finish for Van Sickle, who had one of only two sub-par rounds (69) on the day and finished alone in second at 4-under 276. Van Sickle made 22 birdies in three days — five in the final round, but he could never get comfortable with his putting.

Not only did he miss a 4-footer to save par at the 425-yard 17th, he also missed easy birdie putts of 18 inches at the short par-4 13th and a 5-footer at the 232-yard 14th. Those misses came back to haunt him when Cole doubled the final hole to finish just a shot in front of him.

It was a disturbing sense of déjà vu for Van Sickle, who missed a 3-foot birdie at No. 13 two years ago when he finished second to winner David Bradshaw.

“Two of the last three years I missed short putts on 13 that came back to bite me,” said Van Sickle, who won $20,000. “The putter wouldn’t cooperate this week for the most part.”

But it was Cole who made all the right shots at the right time, none bigger than at the 555-yard 15th when he left an awkward pitch shot 15 feet short of the hole and then made the putt for birdie.

That jolt of confidence allowed him to stuff a 4-iron from 217 yards to 3 feet for another birdie at he 217-yard 16th, pushing his lead to three shots. That cushion came in handy two holes later at No. 18.

“It’s nice to play the course a lot, more than anything to know what to expect,” said Cole, who was making his fourth appearance in the invitational. “I knew the course would be easier on Monday and start to get harder. It’s nice to know what to expect.”


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com or Twitter @gerrydulac.

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