By Sean Martin, Golfweek
SEA ISLAND, Ga. – Sean Dale sought a PGA Tour card last fall. Falling short of that goal allowed him to win one of the nation’s premiere amateur events.
Dale, a North Florida senior, won the Jones Cup on Sunday with a 3-under 213 total at Ocean Forest Golf Club. He finished two shots ahead of Abilene Christian’s Alex Carpenter (71) and Alabama’s Cory Whitsett (75). Dale started the final round four shots behind Whitsett, but shot Sunday’s best score, a 3-under 69.
Dale, 23, didn’t play for North Florida during the fall season in order to participate in the final Q-School that offered PGA Tour cards. The Jones Cup was Dale’s first event since bowing out at Q-School’s second stage. He joins a winner’s list that includes PGA Tour players D.J. Trahan, Nicholas Thompson, Luke List, Kyle Stanley and Patrick Reed, as well as recent winners Justin Thomas and John Peterson.
Dale was the first player to finish under par at the Jones Cup since Rees Jones renovated Ocean Forest in 2007. The previous four Jones Cups were won with scores of even-par or higher. Dale’s 69 was one of just four sub-70 scores this week.
What a difference a year made. He was a combined 33 over in the past two Jones Cups, but said his Q-School experience helped him play smarter around a penal Ocean Forest layout. He eschewed driver on many holes, even the 618-yard, par-5 sixth, in order to find the fairway. “I hit a lot of hybrids and 3-woods off the tee just to get the ball in play,” he said. “I learned it’s not about hitting it as far as I once thought you needed to. It’s just about getting the ball in the fairway and giving yourself opportunities.”
Finding the fairway allowed Dale to exhibit excellent iron play. Four of his five birdies Sunday came on putts of 6 feet or shorter. He birdied the first hole after nearly holing out with a 9-iron from trees right of the fairway. He bogeyed Nos. 4 and 5, but birdied the par-5 sixth hole after hitting 8-iron to 4 feet. He knocked a pitching wedge 1 foot from the hole on the par-3 ninth.
He made his fourth birdie after hitting 8-iron from a bunker left of the 11th fairway to 6 feet. His final birdie came on a 20-foot putt from the fringe at the par-5 14th.
Whitsett started the day with a three-shot shot lead and was five shots ahead after making 6-foot birdie putts at Nos. 1 and 3. He bogeyed three of the next four holes, including a missed 1-footer on the par-4 seventh, and double-bogeyed the par-5 10th after a tee shot into the marsh right of the fairway forced him to re-tee. He was even-par on the final eight holes. “Two things could’ve happened after No. 10,” Whitsett said. “I could’ve tanked it and shot 80 or I turn it around and make a run, and I’d like to think I did that.”
Carpenter, who shot a final-round 71, was the only player to shoot par or better in all three rounds. The 2011 Southern Amateur champion made birdie on three of the first six holes to pull within one shot of Whitsett. He was 2 over on the final 12 holes, though.
Florida State freshman Rowin Caron, the top-ranked amateur in the Netherlands, shared the first-round lead with Whitsett and had a one-shot lead at the turn Sunday after making a 30-foot birdie putt at No. 8 and a 5-footer for birdie at No. 9. He was two shots ahead after making birdie at No. 11, but double-bogeyed the par-5 14th when his approach shot went into a hazard left of the green. He played the final three holes in 3 over, including a double-bogey at No. 18, to finish four shots back. Caron tied for fourth with South Carolina freshman Matthew NeSmith at 1-over 217.
Dale, a four-time winner in college, will play for the Ospreys this spring, starting with next week’s Gator Invitational. His college career will resume after winning the biggest amateur title of his career, thanks in part to a brief foray into the professional world.