Looking for a dark horse this week at the Players Championship? Check out tour rookie Jeff Klauk. Not only is he one of this season's most successful first-year players, but he also has a secret that could propel him to the top of the leader board this week. Ready?
"My job in high school was to mow the fairways and greens at Sawgrass," Klauk says with a laugh. "I had to pay for car insurance just like any other kid."
Talk about course knowledge. Klauk's sweet summer gig came courtesy of his father, Fred, who was TPC superintendent for more than two decades before retiring last year. Jeff Klauk estimates that he's played the Stadium course more than 1,000 times.
That's right. This week, the most experienced guy in the field is a PGA Tour rookie. The Floridian is ready for a special homecoming.
"I'm going to enjoy the moment," he says. "Being 15, 16 years old and wanting to play in it ... this is like my major. It just means a lot more to me than it would to other people."
He paid his dues to get here. Shortly after a decorated golf career at Florida Southern University, Klauk spent seven consecutive years on the Nationwide Tour. He was never one of the tour's stars, but he always finished inside the top 100 on the money list. (Today he's one of only five players to earn more than $1 million from Nationwide events.) Annual trips to Q-School never produced that elusive PGA Tour card. He finally earned a promotion by finishing third on the 2008 Nationwide money list. Despite the jump, Klauk was able to carry his steady play into the new season.
"My thought process never changed. I don't do anything flashy," he says. "I don't hit it far. I just try to be a consistent player."
By most any measure, the 31-year-old's first year on tour has been a success. He has made 11 cuts in 13 events. He's earned more than $600,000. Perhaps best of all, he's been in contention on a Sunday, playing in the final group at the Honda Classic. That March afternoon, which Klauk calls his most memorable of the year, he reeled off 17 pars and one bogey to finish tied for fourth. Not a W, but not shabby for his first close-up. It's fair to say that Klauk has had some extra preparation for his time in the spotlight.
"I've grown up around it my whole life," he says. "I've known what it's all about. Knowing the majority of the pros, knowing the majority of the people who work the tour. The only thing I've had to learn is the golf courses."
Klauk was an 11-year-old tooling around the Sawgrass grounds when he first met assistant pro Cody Barden. The two became friends, and in 2005 Klauk, mired in a slump, hired Barden as his swing coach. Barden made the requisite changes to Klauk's swing, but the pair also worked on the mental game. The results are still paying dividends, but Barden believes Klauk's self-confidence could take him to the next level.
"He wants to be an elite player," Barden says. "When you have talent combined with confidence, you have a lethal combination."
Barden, who resides in Atlanta, speaks with Klauk daily. That slump of 2005 is ancient history, and the teacher appears every bit as excited as the student for a return trip to Florida this week.
"It's one thing to be Fred Klauk's son playing in this tournament. But the Jeff Klauk story is a story all its own. He's the kind of guy you want to root for," Barden says.
As you might expect, Klauk immediately made an invitation to the Players Championship a mid-season goal, despite the odds against a rookie earning enough FedEx points to qualify. (Scott Piercy is the only other first-year player in the field.) Klauk is currently 40th in FedEx points, and his steady play is reflected in his rookie-best 11 made cuts. He's pleased with where he stands, but also acknowledges that his first few months on tour have been a learning experience.
"You learn how your mind handles certain situations. The tournament conditions themselves. The crowds. How you react to things." He then pulls a veteran move and makes a joke at the expense of his interviewer.
"It's just like how you make mistakes as a writer, you know?"
Yes, and thank God for spell check. In the meantime, Klauk is focused on the week ahead. No surprise, the plan calls for a steady, relaxed week of golf.
"I'm going to keep it the same as any other tournament," he says. "The course is going to play a little different, but I'm going to try to pretend I'm out there playing with my buddies."
For someone who has already played the course a thousand times with his friends, that shouldn't be a tall order.