Rufie Fessler's ability to scramble and save par one hole after another kept him in contention Sunday during the final round of the Bakersfield City Amateur Golf Championship at Sundale Country Club.
But it was two late birdies by the 21-year-old Fresno State senior that allowed him to claim a thrilling one-stroke victory over a trio of challengers.
Trailing Rich Gilkey by one stroke for the top spot heading into the final hole, Fessler clinched his first City title by calmly sinking a 21â2-foot birdie putt just moments after Gilkey failed to make par on the 18th.
"It's a big tournament for me to win, obviously being from Bakersfield," said Fessler, a Liberty High graduate. "It was a battle out there today. I didn't have quite the game I had yesterday, but my short game saved me through most of the round and I knew I just needed one or two birdies coming in."
Fessler finished the two-day tournament at 4-under (140). Gilkey, Bryce Holloway and three-time tournament champion Brady Baguio tied for second place, one shot off the pace.
Matt Hammons and Anibal Kim Yang, who both finished at 1-under, were the only other golfers in the 75-player field to break par.
With Baguio playing in the group ahead of them, Fessler, Holloway, and Gilkey squared off head-to-head against each other.
The three were tied at 5-under halfway through the round before swapping the lead several times over the final nine holes.
Gilkey, who entered the day three strokes behind Fessler and two back of Holloway, carded three birdies en route to a 3-under 33 on the front-nine.
But after he and Fessler each carded back-to-back bogeys soon after the turn, Holloway grabbed a two-stroke lead with a birdie on the 521-yard, par-5, 14th.
The three were quickly all knotted up again following Holloway's double-bogey on the 15th hole.
Fessler and Gilkey then birdied No. 16 to move ahead of Holloway.
Minutes later, Gilkey took sole possession of the lead, and seemingly control of the tournament, when Fessler missed a short par putt on the par-3 17th.
"I was fortunate to make a good putt on 16 from about 20 feet and that kind of got me right back in the thick of things," Fessler said. "And then on 18 to be able to get up-and-down from the front of the green I thought would get me in a playoff but unfortunately Richie wasn't able to make par and I won by one. My heart goes out to Richie because I know he played better than me the whole round and all day he hit the ball really really well. He was just a couple of putts away from being a champion himself."
Fessler struggled off the tee most of the round, forcing him to make numerous difficult recovery shots, which he did regularly.
"I constantly found myself in terrible spots on the golf course," Fessler said. "In some thick rough. Bad angles to all the pins. I just told myself, 'put it in the best spot to get it up-and-down.' Fortunately my wedge game was good and I didn't really even have to make any putts. I was chipping it close enough just to tap them in. But I knew eventually it was going to catch up to me because I just couldn't keep doing that the whole round. That's what happened (when I bogeyed) 12 and 13 ... But for the most part my short-game saved me."
Fessler's 67 on Saturday ended up being the best round of the tournament. Hammons and Daniel Russell tied for the best final round score with a 69.
Coming off a 5-over 77, Russell was a blistering 6-under on the front-nine Sunday.
While Hammons and Russell had stellar final rounds, several of the event's early leaders struggled on Day 2.
Ron Killmer and DJ Fernando, two former tournament runners-up, followed up an opening-round 70 with 79s to finish 5-over.
Brett Kettler, who also shot an opening-round 70 was four strokes over that total Sunday and finished the tournament tied with Chase Goodvin for seventh place at even-par.
Gilkey was disappointed not to be able to pull out the win on his home course.
"It's the tournament I want to win the most so it's pretty rough, but there's next year," Gilkey said.
Holloway, who had an eagle on the 546-yard, par-5 5th, was left to wonder how things might have been different if not for his troubles on No. 15.
"I'm happy about the finish, but I wish I could have played a little better," Holloway said. "At times I thought I had it under control, but it slipped away."
Baguio, who recently regained his amateur status, had four birdies and three bogeys during the final round.
He watched intently from the edge of the green as Fessler made his tournament-winning putt.
"It was better than I expected, actually," Baguio said of his tournament performance. "Just to come back and play in this tournament that I've looked forward to every year is awesome."
The tournament was also awesome for Fessler, who called the win the biggest of his career.
"It's really exciting," Fessler said. "I've worked the last year or two to get my game in shape. It's good to see it pay off."