Jim Herman Was a Struggling Pro, Then a Chip Shot Changed His Life
If you saw Jim Herman play his second shot on the par-4 3rd hole in the Friday round of the 2014 Houston Open, you might have made a bad guess about his future as a Tour professional. Herman—Jimmy, to his middle school teammates; Hermie, to a circle within the circle—was looking at the kind of pitch-and-run from a perfect lie that Tour players routinely hit to a foot or two, if not hole out. What did Herman do? He sculled his shot with a lob wedge over the green and into a pond, en route to a double bogey and another missed cut. Yes, even Tour players hit 18-handicap duffs now and again, but this was not a one-off. Herman, at 36, had a bad case of the chip-yips, the neurological golfing disease that has sent various players to the broadcast booth, if they're lucky. Or the lesson tee of some random golf school. Or, most commonly, oblivion.
If you saw him play customer golf with his then boss, Donald Trump, in 2006 at Trump National in Bedminster, N.J., you might not have predicted Herman would even make it to the PGA Tour. He was an assistant pro there and an instructor who taught what worked for him because that's all he knew. He was a self-taught player who could not distinguish Homer Kelley (The Golfing Machine) from Homer Simpson (yellow-armed chopper). Herman's game was solid but had no Tour flash, and he lacked the necessary look-at-me bravado that is in the DNA of the vast majority of Tour players. (At least that was my brilliant scouting report after two rounds with Herman.) He and his young wife, Carolyn, a schoolteacher between jobs who was working in the Trump pro shop, were living in a two-bedroom apartment in Bethlehem, Pa., not far from her parents and 40 miles west of Bedminster. In 2006, between his Trump National salary and what he made teaching and picked up playing in local events, Herman earned about $60,000. A living. Or, about what you could make for finishing 20th on any given Sunday on Tour.
And now let's program our time-machine drone to do a flyover to 1992--93 at St. Xavier High. That was Jim's freshman year at St. X, an all-boys' Jesuit school within shouting distance of Cincinnati. In middle school, at Our Lady of Victory, Jimmy was a star in every season. But as a freshman at Xavier, he couldn't make a single team, not even the JV golf squad. Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth could not possible relate.
When Herman was in high school, his father, John, was deep into his career as a civil engineer for Cincinnati Gas & Electric. His mother, Pam, taught third grade at a parochial school. His older brother, Tom, was beginning his long career at Kroger, the supermarket chain. His older sister, Julie, would soon take a job at the Great American Insurance Company in Cincinnati. The Hermans are working people, and when Jim came of age he'd find something to do to pay the bills. But at 14, he wasn't even thinking about college golf, let alone a career in the game.
Yet there Jim was, on the first Sunday in April 2016, winning the Shell Houston Open, at age 38. The victory earned him $1.2 million, a two-year Tour exemption and an invitation to the Masters, among other niceties. And the way he did it! For the first time in his 106 Tour events, Herman had a piece of the 54-hole lead. He played that final round with Jamie Lovemark, another player looking for his first Tour win. Henrik Stenson, the European Ryder Cupper, a behemoth who flat-out kills it, was in the group ahead and pounding on the door. (Herman is a point-to-point player, plotting his way around the course with a weak grip, rounded shoulders, a limber swing and an ongoing series of ball-turf trap draws.) Some of the other boldface names chasing him on that life-changing day were Fowler and Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, and a score of others capable of shooting 65 and blowing by him. Would you have been surprised at all if Jim Herman, 16 years after he left the University of Cincinnati with regrets and without a degree, had signed for 77 and a nice check? Happens all the time.
It's one thing for a winless journeyman from Central Casting to go crazy-low on payday and win from the scorer's trailer. But for a recovering chip-yipper in foreign territory—the camera lenses of NBC Sports pointed at him all afternoon—to hole out from off the green on 16 on Sunday to take a one-shot lead? (The uphill fluffy lie helped, but still.) To make an airtight par on the long par-4 17th with everything riding on it? To stand on the 18th tee for eight slow-ticking minutes, water lurking down the left side from tee to green, waiting for Stenson's big self to clear out, before drilling one down the fairway, low and hot, en route to a closing two-putt par, a final-round 68, a one-shot win and an invitation to the Masters? At 38?
Nobody in professional golf has anything like real job security, but suddenly Herman had more than most. He was already in this year's Players Championship. The win qualified him for next year's edition as well. The Stadium course is actually suited to his disciplined, greens-in-regulation style of play.
At 36, Jim Herman wasn't going to make it. And look at him now. At Houston, Herman became the 510th player to win a Tour event since 1970. He held off some of the best players in the world on a Sunday afternoon, with Johnny Miller whispering to the world about him. He can take all that to the bank, and to his grave. Herman's victory was the damnedest thing to happen in professional golf all year, at least on the happy side of the ledger.
Within a minute of the win, Herman's friend and manager (on a volunteer basis), Michael Wolf, a fellow St. Xavier graduate and the CFO of the U.S. division of a major international automotive--parts manufacturer, looked at his ringing phone and saw these unexpected words on his caller ID: AUGUSTA NATIONAL. On the other end were four or five people from the club ready to present information about housing, registration, parking, practice times, tickets for family members, clubhouse dining, caddie policies and the rest—provided Herman was accepting the invitation to play. (He was accepting the invitation to play.) Early the next morning Herman, brown plaid sport coat draped on his slender shoulders, boarded a 7 a.m. Delta flight for Atlanta, a first step toward his first Masters and the rest of his life.
"The other guys kind of make fun of me for wearing a sport coat when I travel," Jim told me recently, during a dinner at an Italian place on Hilton Head, a restaurant recommended to him by his high school golf coach, Joan Whitaker, who had retired to Hilton Head with her husband. "But I just think it's what you should do." (Herman often stays with friends when he travels, as a young player to save money, now to combat loneliness.) He was playing in the RBC Heritage in the week following his missed cut at the Masters.
Herman could have played in the '50s, the '60s, the '70s. He's a fairways-and-greens golfer who, in this era of the straight ball, will draw shots to the middle of greens, even with the pin back and right, to avoid having to chip. (He'll fade it if he's feeling it, but not that often. He's trying to make a living.) He has been shaped forever by his years in Cincinnati's Greater Catholic League and by his various jobs in the game, most especially his stints at the PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and the course in Bedminster. Trump finds golf in shorts déclassé, and Herman's sensibilities are in a similar vein. He has a closet full of sweater vests and embroidered belts and pressed khaki shorts for lounging around the house. The family home (he and Carolyn have two children, six-year-old Abigail and two-year-old Andrew) is an open one-story design in an unpretentious gated development—no golf course—in Palm City, Fla. It's up the road and a million miles away from Tiger's place in Hobe Sound and the swankery of North Palm Beach. There are two cars in the driveway and a third in the garage, a shiny black BMW convertible reserved for after-church Sunday drives, an automobile that would not be there at all had Herman not made an ace at a tournament in Mexico last year.
One of the most satisfying gifts of his Houston victory were the congratulations he received on the practice tee at Augusta on Tuesday of Masters week. Fowler and Spieth. Jack Nicklaus. Ernie Els and Bubba Watson. Butch Harmon, Johnny Miller. Bunches of others. Everybody, really. "Some of these guys, I didn't even realize they knew me," Herman says. Justin Rose told him, "Henrik is one of my good buddies, but I got to say, that was awesome." People could see what that victory was all about: the power of perseverance. Its aftermath is a reminder of how status, and achieving status, is such a driving force for so many. With that 4 on 18 on Sunday in Houston, Herman was in the club, the club of Tour winners. At Augusta he played a nine-hole practice round with Sergio García, whom he had not previously met, and walking down the 1st fairway, García put his arm around Herman's shoulder. He can't recall exactly what García said, but he can summarize the message: Welcome.
And then, in his Masters debut, the first guy off on Thursday morning, moments after Arnold, Jack and Gary had done their thing, Herman short-sided himself at the 1st. And what did he do next? He chipped it in from 54 feet. Then he got his second shot to the collar on the par-5 2nd, setting up a kick-in birdie. He was two under and leading the Masters.
The PGA Tour, in the Tiger era and beyond, has become a team sport. Everybody knows it, but for the longest time Herman, in his sport coat and shiny loafers, resisted it. At the end of the 2014 season, he cried on his wife's shoulder. He loved the game, but he didn't know if he could make it as a Tour player. He had played 21 events that year, made only 11 cuts and earned $187,000, good for 187th on the money list. It was the third time he had played a full season on Tour, and each time he had been unable to keep his card. Carolyn asked, "What can I do?" They came up with a plan. As golfers do these days, they assembled a team. The move was somewhere between an act of faith and an act of desperation.
At the suggestion of Mickie Gallagher, the director of golf at Bedminster, Jim started to see a South Florida instructor named Bill Davis, to work on the mechanical problems in his chipping and pitching.
"I don't believe in sugarcoating things," Davis says. "I told Jim he didn't have the skill set to be competitive in the Jordan Spieth--Jason Day arena from 100 yards and in." The mental aspect, as is so often the case, began with poor mechanics before creeping north to the brain. "He was using too much lower body," Davis says. "His club selection was poor. He had too much acceleration through the ball. His practice was inefficient. He didn't have drills that were giving him feedback."
The full list is most certainly longer. It's been an effective relationship. "Jim's been an excellent student," Davis says. "He'll do exactly what you tell him to do. Some people have to have their hand held more than others. Jim would be at the bottom of that scale."
Herman also hired back one of his former caddies, Matt Achatz, who won with Rocco Mediate and was on Mediate's bag for his 2008 U.S. Open playoff loss to Tiger Woods. Achatz is a sounding board for Herman and is unafraid to voice his opinion. On certain pitches and chips, Achatz will tell his boss he will watch the ball and that Herman should keep his head down, per the instructions Davis gives them both.
Achatz points to a single day from last year when Herman became a better golfer. "Last year at Honda we got paired with Phil for the final 36 holes," Achatz says. Phil Mickelson, of course. Herman had never played with Phil, and for the first two or three holes he was quick and nervous. "I said to him, 'Phil does not care if you hit good shots or bad shots,'" Achatz recalls. "'Let's just play our game.'" Herman shot a 71-69 and tied for seventh. Eight weeks later he tied for fourth at the Zurich Classic. Those top 10s were instrumental in his keeping his card for the first time, and that day with Mickelson would pay particular dividends during the final round at Houston.
It's a six-person team, really: wife, caddie, teacher, manager, player and head coach. The last would be Tim Kremer, founder of a school called Spirit of Golf. Kremer is not a psychologist "and we don't talk about problems," he says. "We focus on the vision of where you want to go. Those eight minutes, when he stood on that 18th tee, were an opportunity for a lot of crazy thoughts to get in his head, and that didn't happen. Our focus is to be in the now. Dragging the past in, that just gets in your way."
But the past cannot just be erased like unwelcome texts on your cellphone. Though Trump offered limited financial help at best, his ferocious belief in himself infected Herman. Plus, Trump gave him a beautiful place to play and practice. As for the chip-yips, once in recovery, always in recovery. Herman faces that reality in every round. The cure is good mechanics, and keeping his eyes on the spot where the ball just was. "On 16 on Sunday at Houston, I kept my head down and hit the shot that changed my life," Herman says. He wanted to peek, but he didn't.
I take a particular interest in this story, because I was so wrong about Jim Herman. Even when I had a long, enjoyable dinner with him a couple of weeks before the Houston tournament, I never saw a PGA Tour win in his future. He remembers what I told him a decade ago: "Win the Met Open, and I'll write it up." The Met is one of the best tournaments in the New York City area, played on old-line courses. He finished third in 2006 and won $8,000. Some check.
I mention this because I hope Herman's story will inspire you as it has me. He is the embodiment of the apocryphal Winston Churchill commencement speech, described as the shortest ever, that is often in circulation this time of year but really should be held on to for all times and in all seasons:
"Never give up, never give up, never give up.”