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Wichita golfer continues his PGA Tour quest with Sand Creek Championship title

Wichita eagle logo Wichita eagle 9/18/2020 By Taylor Eldridge, The Wichita Eagle

Walking up to the No. 18 green in the final round of the Sand Creek Championship on Thursday, Sam Stevens couldn’t help but grin.

It was a pressure-packed situation: the Wichita native was in the final group battling against Peyton Wilhite and had a 15-foot birdie putt that would seal a victory. But a calming sensation had overcome Stevens when he recognized two figures in the background.

It was his grandfather, Johnny Stevens, and his 16-year-old cousin, Kate Tilma. Earlier this summer, Tilma made Kansas history by becoming the first female to win the Kansas Junior Amateur and Amateur championships in the same summer — and she did it by sinking a 15-foot putt on the 54th hole at Sand Creek Station with her grandfather watching.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘My granddad was standing right behind the green when Kate made her putt and she made about a 15-footer,’” Sam Stevens said. “You know what? I might as well make it.”

It must have felt like deja vu for the Stevens family in attendance on Thursday watching one of their family members step up to a potential tournament-winning putt and drain a 15-footer to become champion.

The final birdie gave Stevens his second straight 7-under round of 65, as he finished 20-under for the 54-hole tournament, one stroke better than Wilhoit. The tournament victory netted Stevens a purse of $25,000 and his third victory this summer on the All Pro Tour, as the No. 1-ranked golfer has now earned nearly $100,000 on the tour — $31,000 more than the second-ranked golfer.

“I don’t think I could have done any better this week,” Stevens said. “It was great having my wife and baby boy here this week and hanging out with family, being close to home and then playing well. It’s just different when you are able to sleep in the house you grew up in.”

Stevens was playing so well after the turn, with birdies on three of the first four holes to take a 2-stroke lead on Wilhite, that he looked poised to run away with the tournament. But some bad luck on No. 14 changed that, as Stevens saw his drive bounce into tall grass. After taking the penalty, Stevens had to swallow a double bogey that allowed Wilhite back into a tie for the lead.

“I went back and hit a great ball off the tee and then another good iron shot, so I got that feeling back that I was still hitting it good and still tied for the lead,” Stevens said. “It would have been easy to get negative when you feel like you just gave 2 shots away, but I reminded myself that I was tied with four holes still to play. At the start of the week, I wouldn’t be too upset about that. So I just kind of got in that frame of mind that I still had a chance to win.”

Stevens steadied himself with a birdie on the par-5 No. 16 to take a 1-shot lead. After trading pars on the par-3 No. 17, Wilhoit applied the pressure on No. 18 when he planted his approach shot within tap-in range. Stevens knew he would have to deliver a good approach shot to give himself a chance at birdie to avoid a playoff.

Sure enough, Stevens gave himself a chance and was pleasantly surprised when he diagnosed a simple read for the birdie putt: slightly uphill with a little bit of break in the beginning. Stevens’ putt trickled into the hole to secure the victory and continue a breakout summer for the Kapaun Mount Carmel graduate.

“It was definitely a little nerve-racking and you heart is pumping a little, but it’s also exciting to have a chance like that to win,” Stevens said. “I’m not afraid of that situation. I had a putt and I’ve made them before, so I knew to just give it my best effort and get it started on the line.”

Another tournament title has been claimed, but Stevens is sticking around in Wichita to see if he can’t grab one more. The Korn Ferry Tour is hosting a Monday qualifier at Sand Creek Station with the top four golfers advancing to play in next week’s Wichita Open at Crestview Country Club.

“Hopefully I can get into the Wichita Open and we can have a similar celebration after the last day there,” Stevens said. “I’m going to have to shoot pretty low to get in.”

Playing in a Korn Ferry Tour event is the next step for the 24-year-old, who said his ultimate goal is to reach the PGA Tour.

“I would love to play on the PGA Tour and play on the PGA Tour for a long time,” Stevens said. “It’s a long and hard road to get there and you’ve got to be playing really good golf really consistently for a long period of time to get there. This year playing on the All Pro Tour has been great for me and hopefully I can continue my climb all the way up there.”

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©2020 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

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