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Caddie Jeff King cooks the most popular homemade beef jerky on the PGA Tour, and now he's turning pro

Jeff King and Luke List
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Jeff King caddying for Luke List at the Colonial in May 2013. Prior to looping for List, King caddied for Vaughn Taylor on the PGA Tour and Candie Kung and Cristie Kerr on the LPGA tour.

King grew up in Hammond, Ind., in the exurbs of Chicago. His father coached high school basketball across Indiana for 22 years, and he’ll proudly tell you that in 1978, at Bishop Noll Institute, he had the 18th-ranked team in the country. Jeff was a natural athlete who excelled in hoops and hockey, but golf was his true love. Says Jerry, “I used to drop him off at the course in the morning and say I’d be back at sunset. And then I’d have to wait another half hour because he’d be out there in the dark.”

King was good enough to play for Division II Emporia (Kan.) College but smart enough to realize he didn’t have the talent or the single-mindedness to survive as a touring pro. Still enamored with the game, he spent three years after college teaching at the David Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla. There he came to the attention of Mi Hyun Kim, a superstar in Korea who in 1999 was embarking on her maiden LPGA season. She made King an offer he couldn’t refuse, and suddenly he was a professional caddie. Expectations were so sky-high for Kim -- at least among her handlers -- -that when she failed to win any of her first seven tournaments King was made the scapegoat and unceremoniously fired. “That was a rude introduction to the business side of things,” he says with a laugh. As he has after every firing, King drove to his parents’ house to spend some time with his yellow lab Casey. “Sometimes you just need to be with your dog,” he says.

King could have gone back to teaching but caddying was already in his blood. “The thing about Jeff is, he grew up playing team sports and hanging out in the locker rooms with me and my players,” says Jerry. “He’s always loved competition and being in the middle of the action. Caddying made him feel like he was part of a team again.”

This spirit of collaboration would become crucial as Kingmade struggled to mass-produce its jerky. Papazian raised $175,000 to launch the company -- hitting up friends and family and even getting $25,000 from Bennett, Kuchar’s caddie -- but the the jerky itself remained the biggest hurdle. In the late spring, King sent his recipes to a processing plant in Chicago, but even after a series of phone consultations the samples that came back were, “like eating cardboard,” he says. “It was depressing.” Papazian located a more boutique operation by the name of C & C Processing, in Diller, Neb. This time King wanted to handle things face-to-face. He loaded up his 2010 Camry with gallons of soy sauce and boxes of spices and made the 600-mile drive to Diller (pop. 258). “I wasn’t coming home ’til we got it right,” King says. He spent three nights on a couch at the home of C & C’s president, Chad Lottman. A week later the first vacuum-tumbled samples arrived at King’s apartment. “I was almost too nervous to open them,” he says. “If the jerky wasn’t right, this whole thing was going down the tubes.” When he finally found the courage to tear the plastic, “it smelled exactly the same as my kitchen when I’m make my jerky. It was like, Yessss!” The only difference is in the texture. At home King slow-cooks his jerky at 155 degrees, but for commercial operations the USDA mandates a minimum temperature of 270, which has left the jerky a touch drier. It’s something King has learned to live with.

The first orders from kingmadejerky.com shipped at the end of July. The website offers the classic, sweet chili and Buffalo flavors, at $54 a pound. C & C can produce up to 3,000 pounds of jerky a week, though it will take a while to build that kind of demand. King’s buddies on Tour have been happy to help with the promotion; tweets have gone out from loyal customers like Graeme McDowell (“Great tasting without all the junk”), Rickie Fowler (“#Go Time), Andres Gonzalez (“Eat the jerky the pros eat!!!”) and Horschel (“Not being paid for this”). Dozens of caddies are carrying towels with the snazzy Kingmade logo. The Tour fraternity is happy to pitch in because King is such an unassuming guy but also because he’s representative of a pleasing entrepreneurial spirit. “It’s the American Dream,” says Love.

Papazian likes to note that beef jerky is a $7 billion a year industry, but his partner is trying not to think about the money. “I’ve been struggling to make ends meet for so long I’m kind of used to it,” King says. “If by some chance this thing takes off, I wouldn’t mind having a little extra money for travel expenses, but I don’t see any scenario where I’d quit caddying. It’s who I am.”

That’s good news for List, who is trying to keep his card through the Web.com tour finals. “He does such a good job out there,” says List. “He’s so positive all the time. And he’s very knowledgeable about the golf swing, which can be a major asset.” Still, List enjoys teasing his looper about his budding jerky empire. At the PGA Tour event in Puerto Rico, a yacht was parked alongside one of the ocean holes and List told his caddie, “Next year that’s going to be yours.” It has become a running joke between them, but in truth King has bigger dreams. “What am I going to do with a yacht?” he says. “If this thing becomes a success what I would really love is to sponsor Luke, to have my name on his shirt. I seriously doubt in all of golf history that a caddie has sponsored a player. How cool would that be?”

And no matter how big Kingmade gets, expect its blue-collar gourmet to continue to toil in his kitchen. King still takes special orders from his friends in golf. He makes a sweet flavor that is popular on the LPGA -- Kung helps with distribution -- and a jerky with ghost peppers, one of spiciest varietals on the planet. That’s reserved for a select few friends he has vetted to make sure they won’t croak upon taking a bite. List didn’t qualify for the PGA Championship, so King spent the week at home testing out new recipes, including vanilla rum and another mixing ale with Italian salad dressing. He was enthusing about these creations when his phone buzzed. “Just got a text from an LPGA caddie asking me to do a taco flavor,” he said. “That might be worth a shot.”

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