KAPALUA, Hawaii — Harris English was that player who always wanted the ball for the last shot. His trouble the past couple of years was getting off the bench and into the game.
English completed his turnaround from a winless drought of seven-plus years on the PGA Tour with a victory he believed was long overdue, making a six-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole against Joaquin Niemann to win the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Sunday at Kapalua Resort.
He had the ball. And he was clutch.
The 31-year-old former Baylor School and University of Georgia golf star ran off four birdies in a five-hole stretch on the back nine to catch Niemann. Needing a birdie on the 18th hole of the Plantation Course, English hit a 3-iron so pure from a downhill lie that it rolled out to 10 feet from the cup for an eagle putt that he narrowly missed, settling for a 4-under-par 69 to force extra holes.
In the playoff, he lagged a long putt from off the front of the green to six feet for the winner, again on No. 18.
"When I was a kid, I loved having the ball when the clock's running out in basketball," English said. "I love — I love — the situations, and I crave getting back into that. I hadn't had it in a long time. You've got to have confidence in yourself."
Niemann did his part with a 9-under 64, matching the low score of this year's tournament, impressive considering the blustery wind that finally showed up on the final day in Maui.
The 22-year-old Chilean missed a six-foot birdie putt on the 18th that cost him, though, and in the playoff, with a 30-yard advantage off the tee, he tugged his shot just enough that it tumbled down the shaggy slope left of the 18th. A full swing with a lob wedge only got it up the hill to the fringe, and his birdie attempt from 15 feet was short.
"I had a perfect line the second shot, I just mishit it a little bit," Niemann said. "I got a little lucky that it carried the hazard, and then it was not an easy lie."
Niemann started the final round five shots behind and would have been happy at the start of the day to be in a playoff, but he couldn't help but think of the 18th.
"I just look back and I see those two par 5s. I made par," he said.
English and Nieman finished at 25-under 267 for 72 holes. It was the second straight year the tournament was decided by a playoff.
English once was among the rising American stars, winning a Nationwide Tour event while still an amateur and picking up two PGA Tour victories in a five-month span in 2013 early in his professional career, the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis and the OHL Classic at Mayakoba in Mexico. Then he got into a funk, and he fell so far that he lost his full card in 2019 and was No. 369 in the Official World Golf Ranking. He played so well from there that he reached the Tour Championship last year, and it paid off in a big way.
In a normal year, English wouldn't have been at Kapalua for the winners-only event that follows the flip of the calendar. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down the PGA Tour for three months, the field was expanded to include anyone who reached the Tour Championship; Niemann also didn't win last year.
The fact English made it to the Tour Championship speaks to his turnaround. The Sea Island, Georgia, resident did everything but win last season, and then he took care of that in the first tournament of the year, where he had at least a share of the lead after every round. English now goes to No. 17 in the world, a career best.
"It's awesome to get some validation," said English, who did have three unofficial money wins since his first PGA Tour victories, pairing with former Georgia Tech standout and fellow PGA Tour player Matt Kuchar in 2013, 2016 and last month to win the team event known now as the QBE Shootout.
Justin Thomas stayed in the mix at Kapalua one day after he was heard uttering a homophobic slur under his breath after missing a short putt. Thomas apologized on Saturday and did so again after a 66 left him one shot out of the playoff. He missed an eight-foot birdie chance on the 16th, three-putted from long range on the 17th for a bogey, and a birdie on the final hole wasn't enough.
Dustin Johnson, in his first start since winning the Masters on Nov. 15, made an early run until he lost a tee shot in the native grass on No. 12 and made a double bogey. He shot a 69 and tied for 11th, ending his streak of seven consecutive top 10 finishes dating to the first week in August.
Ryan Palmer, who shared the 54-hole lead with English, had an early lead with an eagle on the fifth hole of the final round. His hopes came undone when his tee shot on the par-3 11th turned left with the wind into the shin-high grass. It took him two to get out, and he made a double bogey. Palmer rallied with four birdies on his last five holes but shot a 71 to finish two back and alone in fourth.
The most significant wind of the tourney eventually allowed for some separation, and it came down to English, Niemann and Thomas over the final hour. English got back in the game by running off four birdies in a five-hole stretch starting at No. 11, and he appeared to be in control until attacking a back pin on the 16th, going just over the green and making a bogey.
He wound up making the 18th his clutch hole — twice.