Updated: Lepp reflects on runner-up finish on Big Break Greenbrier
An hour before the final episode of Big Break Greenbrier aired on Tuesday evening, Abbotsford's Cactus Club Cafe was already packed, as friends and family of local golfer James Lepp gathered to see if he could secure the top prize on the popular Golf Channel reality show.
Lepp was facing Mark Silvers of Savannah, Ga. in the 18-hole match-play finale, and an impressive prize package – highlighted by $50,000 cash and an exemption into the PGA Tour's 2013 Greenbrier Classic – was on the line.
For a while, it looked like Lepp was going to run away with it. He seized the lead on the fifth hole, and stretched it to three-up with five holes remaining.
With every great shot the 29-year-old struck – and there were many – a loud cheer rose from the Cactus Club crowd.
But Lepp himself knew this wasn't going to end well – the show had taped six months prior, but he was contractually prohibited from revealing the outcome. So he maintained his poker face as Silvers staged a dramatic rally, winning four of the last five holes and clinching a one-up win by knocking down a birdie putt on the par-three 18th.
When Silvers's final putt hit the bottom of the cup, Lepp's crew sat in stunned silence for a moment. Then, a huge round of applause in honour of his thrilling run.
"As everybody was cheering through the middle of the episode, obviously I knew what was going to happen," Lepp said with a smile afterward. "So I kind of felt bad a little bit – like, oh crap, they don't know how things are going to turn.
"But when everyone cheered at the end even though I had lost, it kind of made it not matter as much. The whole night in general, it was sweet."
Lepp was one of 12 golfers cast for the show, which was taped in June and saw players compete in a variety of elimination challenges over the course of 11 episodes.
It's not hard to understand why his backstory was appealing to the show's producers. Lepp's phenomenal amateur career was highlighted by winning the 2005 NCAA championship – a title previously held by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
But after turning pro in the summer of 2006, consistency proved elusive, and Lepp lost his passion for golf. In 2008, he stunned observers of the sport by putting his playing career on the back burner and launching Kikkor Golf, a shoe and apparel company.
But being on Big Break Greenbrier served to reignite Lepp's love of the game, and he in turn delighted golf fans with his charismatic approach and unique "saucer pass" chipping style. Now, he's leaning towards resuming his playing career on the PGA Tour Canada circuit (formerly the Canadian Tour) in the spring.
"I do take a lot of confidence from this," he said. "I know that I'm a good golfer, and I know I can still get better and improve. I'm looking forward to the challenge of becoming a better golfer."
Users of the social media site Twitter voted Lepp the Break Break fan favourite – an honour accompanied by a $5,000 prize. But Lepp elected to split the prize between all 12 contestants.
"I had already won some money on the show, and I felt like I earned that money," said Lepp, referring to the $10,000 he won during challenges earlier in the series. "The popularity contest, it's not like a prize you earn. To be paid for being popular, it doesn't really make sense in my mind.
"It just felt right to divide it. Easy decision."
As the Big Break episodes aired and Lepp kept advancing week by week, his friends tried to probe for a hint as to where he might finish. But he said it wasn't difficult to keep the secret.
"I knew it could potentially culminate into a setting like this," he said, alluding to the electric atmosphere at the Cactus Club on Tuesday. "So it was easy for me to not tell anybody, because the payoff could be so sweet. And it was. It was fun for everyone, fun for me.
"The majority people thought I was going to win for sure . . . because I was doing so well in the previous episodes, and it just looked like it was building up to a win.
"Unfortunately it didn't turn out that way, but everyone was OK with that because it was such a great ride for everyone."