BROUSSARD — Not a lot of players on the Web.com Tour get a chance to defend tournament titles, but Kelly Kraft’s doing that this week and he’s happy he has the opportunity.
Kraft won last year’s $550,000 Chitimacha Louisiana Open with a stellar final round, and the Dallas native went on to earn a promotion to the PGA Tour, where he’s played eight times this season.
But this week’s PGA Tour stop is the restricted-field Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando, and Kraft — like many other recent Web.com Tour graduates — didn’t make that by-invite-only field.
“It’s hard to get in there,” Kraft said, “and a lot of guys in my category and with my number didn’t get in. So I didn’t even think twice about coming here. I was excited about the chance to come back and defend.”
Kraft is in the morning group Thursday when the 152-player field tees off in the 25th annual Louisiana Open at Le Triomphe Golf Club. He’ll be chasing his second straight oversized $99,000 check, which will be presented after Sunday’s final trip around the wind-blown 7,067-yard par-71 layout.
Play begins at 7:20 a.m. Thursday and Friday off both the Nos. 1 and 10 tees. The field will be cut to the low 65 and ties for the weekend rounds.
Kraft is one of nine of last year’s top 25 Web.com Tour money winners in this week’s field, mostly due to the Open being opposite Bay Hill. He’s also one of four past Louisiana Open champions, part of a field that includes 13 players who have combined for two dozen PGA Tour championships and 36 former Web.com Tour winners.
“We think we’ve got the strongest overall field we’ve ever had,” said Open executive director Danny Jones. “We’ve got a lot of guys who have had success on both tours, especially with the tour’s new structure.
“We’ve also got a lot of players that people here in Acadiana will see for the first time this week, and then they’ll see these same names playing on TV later this year and who will be very successful on the PGA Tour in the next few years.”
That group includes Kraft, who finished seventh on last year’s Web.com Tour money list and has made four cuts in eight PGA Tour starts.
“It’s fun coming back to defend,” said Kraft, who tied for 31st in the Farmers Insurance Open and tied for 33rd in the Shriners Hospital for Children Open on this season’s PGA Tour. “You don’t get to do it very often on this tour just because if you’re in the PGA Tour event that week you need to play and you want to play up there. But I have some good vibes here.”
Kraft birdied three of last year’s final four holes on the way to a final-round 65 that brought him back from a six-stroke deficit, but thought that a 6-foot birdie putt that slid by the left edge on the 18th green was going to cost him.
“I hit a lot of really good shots and gave myself a chance coming in,” he said, “but I remember missing that putt on 18 that I thought I needed to get into a playoff. But I ended up even needing that. It worked out perfectly.”
Kraft took advantage of Le Triomphe’s par-fives last year, posting eight birdies and a stunning eagle on the downwind par-five seventh hole where he smoked a drive and hit a 178-yard 9-iron to within 8 inches.
“You have to start well, because the back nine’s a little harder and you have to hit better shots,” Kraft said. “There’s more penalty for shots that you miss. But depending on the wind, you can take advantage of the par-fives and there’s three of them on the front nine and they’re all reachable.”
Kraft will be bucking history, since no player in the 27-year history of the Web.com Tour has successfully defended a title. Several have won the same tournament twice, including the Open’s only two-time winner in Brett Wetterich (2003 and 2011), but none have done it in back-to-back years.
Kraft and Wetterich join Casey Wittenberg (2012) and Edward Loar (2013) among previous Open winners in a field that also includes both players who have already won on the Web.com Tour this year. Ryan Armour captured the Panama Claro Championship in Panama City, Panama, and Sebastian Munoz won the Club Colombia Championship in Bogota, Colombia, in February.
The Louisiana Open is the first U.S. stop on this year’s Tour and the only one in the country until late April.
The Web.com Tour plays tournaments in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico before coming back to the U.S. for the United Leasing Championship April 28-May 1 in Newburgh, Indiana.
Open tickets are $10 daily and available at the Le Triomphe gate.