BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — With a big comeback and an even bigger putt, Alex Cejka ensured he won't have to wait or play his way into events for a while.
Cejka won the Regions Tradition on Sunday in only his third PGA Tour Champions start, beating defending champion Steve Stricker with a birdie on the first hole of a playoff to earn a full exemption for the next two seasons.
A childhood refugee from communist Czechlosovokia, the 50-year-old Cejka made a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 18 and Stricker missed an 8-footer with a chance to extend the playoff at Greystone Golf & Country Club.
“It’s incredible. I still can't believe it. I have no words," said Cejka, who made the field as first alternate when Jay Haas withdrew on Monday. ”I fought so hard.
“We work so hard. I think it's everybody's dream to win trophies and I did it on this tour.”
Cejka had turned a three-stroke deficit into a two-shot lead over the final nine holes for a 5-under 67. His winning putt was from a similar spot to the one Stricker made for birdie in regulation to force the playoff.
Stricker, who won the last time the event was held in 2019, closed with a 68 to match Cejka at 18-under 270.
“I’m proud of the way I kind of fought back and battled back to get into the playoff,” Stricker said. “Just not making enough putts yet is the bottom line. ... Just not making enough of the putts that I’m accustomed to making. So that’s the disappointing part.”
Cejka expected Stricker to match him with birdie.
“You know what, for 99% I thought he was going to make it (in the playoff) and I knew I had to make it to have a chance to go into an extra hole,” Cejka said. “It was a pretty straight putt.
“He had this putt to go into the playoff, just a little bit longer. And I watched him. It was that straight, so I played it that straight and it never moved."
Cejka finished tied for second behind Stricker at the Chubb Classic as a Monday qualifer. He fled his home country with his father at age 9, escaping by foot and train and even swimming and bicycle.
“I’m one of the thousands, millions of people who have a dream and got it done,” Cejka said.
Calgary's Stephen Ames finished 11 shots off the lead and tied for 10th. Mike Weir of Brights Grove, Ont., who won his first career PGA Tour Champions event last week, shot an even par 288 and finished tied for 25th.
Swede Robert Karlsson was third at 14 under after a 69 as the top three final threesome played all day without much of a threat from the pack. He finished with a 69.
Ernie Els (66) and Jerry Kelly (70) finished at 11 under. Two-time champion Bernhard Langer closed with a 71 to finish at 9 under with David McKenzie.
Cejka's only bogey came on the first hole of the day. A four-time winner on the European Tour, he won the 2015 Puerto Rico Open for his lone PGA Tour victory.
Cejka kept playing through the COVID-19 pandemic, winning twice on the Arizona-based Outlaw Tour. Now he's fully exempt for the rest of this season and all of 2022, while also gaining a five-year exemption into both the Regions Tradition and the season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai.
On Sunday, Stricker made about a 13-foot birdie putt on the final hole to force the playoff when Cejka two-putted for par after a poor bunker shot.
“He holed a great putt under pressure to go back into the playoff,” Cejka said. “It was a clutch putt. But in the playoff, I'm a winner. It might be different in 2-3 weeks."
Cejka had a run of three straight birdies from 12-14 to build a two-stroke advantage heading into the final five holes. Stricker's long birdie putt on No. 16 cut it in half before both parred 17.
Stricker had been clutch on No. 18 all weekend.
He had birdied Friday to move into a share of the lead and vaulted to the lead solo with a 25-foot eagle putt on Saturday.
Stricker had won both previous times on the PGA Tour Champions when holding the 54-hole lead, the Regions Tradition and U.S. Senior Open Championship, both in 2019.
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John Zenor, The Associated Press