*** Note at the outset for the uninitiated: The Cowboy Cup Invitational is an 18 hole, low-net tournament that has been played for over 20 years in various locations around the World among an old group of friends and rivals. It was even contested at the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland in 2003. Over the years, though, as this original group of characters grew older, had kids, and dispersed around the country, participation dwindled down to a few hard-core devotees. Founder, and Chairman, Andy Boutot, decided to merge his old group of friends and rivals with his NEW group of friends and rivals, The Muny Rats of Austin, TX, to reinvigorate and grow this storied tournament and tradition into something even more special. The development of its new format (18 holes of net stroke play to determine a “Final Four” who play additional holes in front of a gallery to determine the Champion) has provided everyone involved with the opportunity to test their metal under major championship pressure. The results have provided compelling stories and, for the Champions, golf memories for a lifetime. We hope you enjoy this story of “LJ” Jiang’s great victory, and will join us next year, and in years to come.
Ahhhhh...Golf in October. Cooler temperatures. Golden Fall light. A Summer of practice under one’s belt to provide optimism and hope. These pleasures were enjoyed by the participants in The Cowboy Cup Invitational on Saturday, October 3, 2020 – an unfamiliar date as the grand event had been pushed back from its usual hot and humid June appointment due to the Corona Virus Pandemic. And while daylight would be in shorter supply, everyone would, nonetheless enjoy a gorgeous Fall day on a Grey Rock Golf Club course that was in truly perfect condition. The fairways were still green and lush from recent rain and the putting surfaces were smooth and rolling true.
A record thirty-two golfers were on hand to vie for the Cup, and none more eager than Liangjun “LJ” Jiang. LJ had been on a tear all Spring and Summer, steadily outperforming his well-documented 10 handicap in each Rat game and major. And while he had come up short in the Dollar Open in August and the Rat Derby in September, he came in to the Cowboy Cup as a distinct favorite, along with the red-hot Jason Long, newly minted as the inaugural Rat Derby Champion.
The scores in regulation play were good, with a third of the field shooting within a stroke of their handicap, and Mark Herrin providing a highlight with a HOLE IN ONE on the par three 13th. There was also an eagle on the par five 2nd hole by the long-hitting country boy, Dalton Wallace.
LJ played his afternoon round with what proved to be a group of contenders. Bhanu Rekapalli, a 5 handicapper, fired a 75 (net 70,) and Billy Mutschler, with a handicap of 4, shot 76 (net 72,) while LJ, himself, shot 78 (net 68.) When all the scores were in and the dust had settled, LJ was the leader at net -4, Rekapalli was in second at net -2, and Chris Kendzior (10 handicap) was in third at net -1.
Tied for the last spot in the Final Four at net even par were Mutschler, Cowboy Cup Chairman Andy Boutot (76 / net 72), Chris Lyles (74 / net 72), and Jason Long, who had continued his torrid pace and furthered his growing reputation as the most dangerous Rat on grass by firing a 73 / net 72. In the ensuing chip and putt-off for that last Final Four spot, it was Long who recorded the only successful up and down from 50 feet. Thus, the Final Four was set. Jiang (net -4,) Rekapalli (net -2,) Kendzior (net -1,) and Long (net E) would choose caddies and join the gallery on the par four 10th to play 6 additional holes for all the marbles.
Over those six holes, LJ and Kendzior would each would receive 3 strokes, and Rekapalli would receive 2, while Long, a solid 1 handicapper, would play straight up with no strokes.
Jiang, whose wife and two young children had rushed over to the course to cheer him on, quickly gave hope to his competitors when he rope-hooked his driver into the left trees. Rekapalli, Kendzior, and Long all hit accurate tee shots and would have short-iron approaches.
After a thorough search for his ball in the lateral hazard, Jiang took a drop and hit a mid-iron long and left of the green. Kendzior found the right greenside bunker, while Long and Rekapalli both hit their approaches pin-high but left of the green and would face tough up-and-downs.
Jiang failed to execute his long, short-sided pitch, and ended up carding a disappointing 7 (net 6) to fall back to net -2. Rekapalli chili-dipped his first pitch and ended up with double-bogey 6 (net 5). Long failed to get up and down and finished with a bogey. Kendzior executed a beautiful sand save and made the lone par (net birdie) in the group. So, after one nervy hole, Jiang and Kendzior were now tied at net -2 with Rekapalli falling to net E, and Long now at net +1.
The 430 yard, dogleg left, par four 11th was next, and this time it was Kendzior who would falter and pull hook his drive into the trees left of the fairway. Rekapalli and Jiang both hit serviceable drives up the right side and would have long-iron approaches. Long, surmising that he would need to play aggressively over the next 5 holes to catch up, uncorked a mammoth drive, cutting the dogleg and leaving himself an approach of only 100 yards. After punching out into the fairway, Kendzior sent his mid-iron effort short and right of the green. Jiang and Rekapalli followed suit and also missed short and right. Long, smelling blood, then stuck a sand wedge to within 15 feet. The gallery sensed that the more experienced low-handicapper was about to possibly take over, while the mid-handicappers were succumbing to the pressure - a dynamic that had often been seen previously in Cowboy Cup Final Fours. However, to Long’s dismay, all three of his opponents would make dramatic up and downs from right of the green - Jiang and Rekapalli each for par, and Kendzior for bogey. Long would steady himself, but would miss his birdie putt, disappointedly tapping in for par. Jiang was now solely in the lead at net -2, with Kendzior falling to -1, Rekapalli remaining at net E, and Long still searching at net +1.
On the 410 yard par four 12th, Jiang again pull-hooked his drive into the left trees while Rekapalli, Long, and Kendzior each split the fairway. Jiang would have to take a drop, and, again, would hit a mid-iron short and left of the green. His opponents pounced, each hitting the green, with Long and Rekapalli finishing inside 15 feet. Jiang, lying 3 and facing a long pitch, again executed perfectly, rolling his ball to within 10 feet. He would have that putt for a 5 (net 4.) Kendzior, facing a long , uphill approach putt, came up woefully short and would three-putt for a 5 (net 4.) Long again missed his makeable birdie putt and would settle for par. Rekapalli would two-putt for a net birdie that would get him to net -1. Then Jiang, with focus and determination, calmly stepped up and poured in his 12 footer for a 5 (net 4.) The gallery erupted in appreciation of LJ’s steely nerve as the foursome marched to the 13th tee, with Jiang and Rekapalli now tied at -2, Kendzior at -1, and Long still at +1. Jiang would stop and kiss his wife and children as they elected to head home for bath and bedtime.
The 13th at Grey Rock is a short but intimidating par-three guarded by strategic greenside bunkering and a menacing front pond. Earlier in the day, the field had played it into a stiff breeze. But now the wind had calmed, requiring recalculation. But more importantly, daylight was quickly fading, perhaps lending a nagging urgency to the swings of these men of the hour. With the pin back-left, Long hit a smooth 8 iron to the middle of the green. Rekapalli caught his tee shot fat and ended up just over the water and facing a long, awkward, uphill pitch. Jiang hit a solid 7 iron that ended up inside of Long. Kendzior, heeding unsolicited advice from one of the hooligans in the gallery, second-guessed his original club choice and went instead with a longer club. His indecisiveness would prove to be nearly fatal. He would pull his shot long and left of the green, into the trees and brush, inciting what would be a furious but futile search for his ball. It would end in a penalty drop and a double-bogey 5 that would drop him to net +1. In the midst of the chaos, Rekapalli hit a miraculous pitch to within 10 feet and made his par putt. And when Long and Jiang each two-putted for their pars, it was Jiang and Rekapalli still tied at at -2, and Long and Kendzior now tied, three back at +1.
The shadows were now at their maximum length as tee shots were hit on the par 5, dogleg right 14th. Long and Rekapalli both hit excellent drives, cutting the corner of the dogleg, and setting themselves up to reach the green in two. Jiang, conservatively choosing 3 wood, hit a somewhat anemic push-fade that would result in tree-trouble from the dogleg. Kendzior, selecting driver, pulled his effort well left of the dogleg. The result was a shot that, after narrowly missing a cart of rowdy spotters, ended up bounding into the trees long of the fairway.
Jiang, then, opting to go over the trees, miscalculated slightly, hitting a 7-iron that caught a top limb and, to his horror, came shooting straight back, ending almost at his feet. After collecting himself and then electing to punch low through a gap in the trees, he now faced 220 more yards for his fourth shot. Many in the crowd, who were openly rooting for the affable, immigrant software engineer from Xinjiang, China, nervously sipped from their beer cans and now feared they were witnessing an unfortunate, but perhaps predictable, train wreck. His swing seemed to be breaking down under the unfamiliar pressure of a major championship lead, and only an inspired short game had kept him there to this point. But close inspection of LJ’s stride and demeanor would reveal none of those feelings of dread. He was focused only on the next shot and, for him, this was a perfect 5-wood distance. As those in golf carts ambled toward the green, he breathed slowly and deeply, and took his time addressing his ball. Then, making sure to take the club back with zero tension, he turned beautifully on the ball and let his hips and arms go. The contact was flush and the ball soared high into the orange sky, fading ever so slightly at the end to finish just short and right of the green. When he really needed it, he had executed and stayed in the game. As he strode up the fairway toward his ball, the focus now turned to Rekapalli and Long, who had both played the hole in textbook fashion, and were now practically side by side, less than 10 yards short of the green in two.
Rekapalli was slightly away, and, to the gallery’s surprise, elected to putt up and through the mounded length of sticky green carpet bordering the front of the putting surface. It would prove to be a costly mistake, as the lush fairway grass grabbed his ball almost immediately off the putter face and slowed it to an abrupt stop in the fringe, still two feet short of the green. Shaken, he would three-putt from there, trading in a sure birdie and a share of the lead for a disappointing 6 to fall back to -1. Kendzior, meanwhile, after having punched out of the woods and taking three more laboring shots to reach the green, managed to make a gutty 12-footer for 6 (net 5) and keep his hopes at least faintly alive at +1. He was quietly showing himself to be a gritty competitor, unwilling to throw in the towel.
After finally striding up and reaching his ball, Jiang found himself lying 4 and facing another long uphill pitch from the rough. After walking up to assess a suitable landing spot on the green, he calmly returned to his bag, chose a lob wedge, and, opening up the blade, addressed his ball. With text-book form and tempo, he then lofted the ball high in the air and watched as it landed perfectly on his intended spot, bounced slightly, and rolled out to within 2 feet of the cup! Unbelievable!! Again, his short-game had come up huge! Tapping it in, he had successfully avoided imminent disaster to salvage a bogey / net par and stay in the lead at 2 under par! The crowd roared and shouted his name as he returned to his bag.
But there was one ball-mark left on the green. It was now up to Jason Long to make his move. He had played the last 4 holes aggressively and beautifully and given himself chances for birdies. Not one, however, had dropped and he had remained idling at net +1 as he had watched his opponents hole putts left and right to stay ahead of him. Now, after having made a deft pitch from off the green, he still faced a fast, left to right, sliding, 15 foot down-hiller for his birdie. Perhaps, by sneaking this one in, he could steal some of LJ’s momentum and give him something to think about on the final hole. Taking his time, he surveyed the putt from all sides and, committing to his line, he stepped purposefully up to the ball. Then, with head still and just a slight rock of the shoulders, he started his ball down his intended line. When it was halfway down the hill, his shoulders slumped as he saw it was failing to take the break he had envisioned. Again, a birdie chance slid by and, after tapping in, he trudged to the 15th tee, knowing he would now need a miracle.
So, as the entire gathering stood around the tee box of the short, drivable, dogleg right, par-four 15th hole, the sun was now fully below the horizon. Official Scorer, Matt Brower, announced that It was Jiang still leading at -2, followed by Rekapalli at -1, and Kendzior and Long both still trailing three back at +1. With the honors, Long was leaving nothing in the tank. He pulled out driver, teed the ball high, waggled, and unleashed a booming, high fade that tracked the left side of the green the whole way. It was an incredible shot under intense pressure, and he was rewarded with the ball coming to rest on the putting surface, some 40 feet from the flag. It was an undeniable statement to Jiang that he would have to earn it to the end. Next up, Jiang opted for a hybrid, made a solid swing, and placed it in a good spot down the left, about 80 yards from the pin. Then Rekapalli, with Ruthian flare, pulled out driver and, addressing the gallery, proclaimed for all to hear that he would also put his ball on the green. And he darn near did, uncorking a beautiful tee shot to within 20 yards of the putting surface! Such bravado and execution was met with a tremendous roar from the crowd as Rekapalli fist-pumped his way back toward his cart. Finally, Kendzior sent a statement of HIS own with a towering, 280-yard drive that finished within just a few yards of Rekapalli’s!
Despite worry about the lack of daylight, the gallery was abuzz over such stellar, clutch play under the intense pressure. Jiang would hit first from 85 yards, but, in the darkness, miscalculated his distance to be 100 yards. He was, unfortunately, alone in his miscalculation, given that his (by now, more than half-way inebriated) caddy, Comissioner T. Ross Henry, was busy imbibing and cavorting with the gallery greenside and too far away to stagger over to correct his player’s misjudgment. The result was a crisply hit 100-yard wedge that landed just over the back of the green, careening off the downslope, and coming to rest two feet short of the trunk of a large tree. He would face an impeded backswing on his next shot. Jiang slumped as he watched the result, wondering what had gone wrong.
Pouncing on the opportunity, Rekapalli hit an excellent approach-pitch to within 10 feet, just right of the hole. Then Kendzior almost brought the house down by hitting an aggressive pitch of his own that came within mere millimeters of colliding with the pin for a possible eagle! In the end, his ball would finish 10 feet past the hole.
Jiang now, with jangly nerves and facing possible disaster, cringed as his low pitch from beside the tree came out too hot and scuttled across to the far side of the green. Now lying 3, Jiang trudged over, again dug deep and, this time, answered the call with an excellent 45-foot putt to within 4 feet. He would have that for bogey, but his fate now rested in the hands of Long and Rekapalli.
Long, having waited seemingly forever for his turn to putt for eagle, didn’t take long to step up. He had looked at it from all angles and knew that holing it could put him into a possible sudden death playoff. Alas, though, as soon as it came off the putter face, he walked dejectedly after it, knowing it would finish short and right. He would then convert his tap-in birdie putt to finish at even par. He had played beautifully and fought valiantly, but came up just short. After, Kendzior missed his birdie attempt and tapped in for par. He, too, had comported himself admirably.
It was now all up to Rekapalli. Suddenly, he found himself with an uncomplicated ten-foot birdie putt to win the Championship at -2. By now, it was almost completely dark, and several in the gallery had taken to illuminating the green with their cell-phone flashlights. And so, with everything on the line, Rekapalli put his ball down, crouched behind it one last time, stood over the putt for what felt like an eternity, and then, finally, let it go.
It never touched the hole. He tapped it in and watched Jiang convert his bogey putt.
So what to do? After 24 holes, and now in total darkness, we had a two man tie at -1. With opinions being fired from all directions from caddies, scorers, rules officials, and gallery alike, arguments became hot and edgy. How could this be decided in a proper, but pragmatic way?
Finally, it was decided that the two players, aided by an army of cell-phone flashlights, would have a sudden-death pitch-and-putt-off near the 16th green.
Plane passengers overhead probably wondered if they were witnessing a search party down below in Southwest Austin as the mass of carts and iPhone lights made their way down the path and through the trees toward 16 to surround the green.
An area 40 yards out from the flag was chosen and, with only his ball and the pin illuminated by phone light, Jiang hit the better of the two shots, leaving his ball inside of 8 feet. But when he failed to convert his putt and both made 3, expediency dictated that it become a putt-off. First from 15 feet…both missed. Then 10 feet…misses.
Finally, from 8 feet, Jiang poured one into the cup and, when Rekapalli failed to match him, Jiang was the Champion. After 30 minutes of surreal and exhilarating confusion in the darkness, it was finished. Fittingly, for Jiang, it was his putter that had won it for him in the end. The two competitors shook hands and embraced on the green and, amid shouts of “El-Jayyyyyyy!”, an armada of carts crept their way back to the clubhouse.
There, under the outdoor pavilion, with the diehards gathered round, Jiang’s caddy and last year’s champion, Ross Henry, helped him slip into the jacket and lit his champion’s cigar. Chairman, Andy Boutot, spoke admiringly of Jiang and his performance, and presented him with the Champion’s bourbon and, finally, the impressive Cowboy Cup Invitational Silver Trophy. Weary, but beaming, Jiang graciously thanked everyone for a wonderful day and raised the cup high above his head for the cameras, saying he said he couldn’t wait to tell his kids and his dad. Delighted and touched, everyone raised a glass to the humble and loveable family man, and now, Champion, LJ Jiang.
The Cowboy Cup
Liangjun 'LJ' Jiang