PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Cinderfella is in the house. The funny thing is, it’s his own house.
Jeff Klauk is the son of Fred, who was the superintendent of the Stadium Course for more than two decades. Jeff grew up on this course, learned the game here and figures he’s played it at least 1,000 times. There hasn’t been a home-field advantage this big since Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams.”
It’s a dream week for Klauk, 31, who spent seven years working his way to the PGA Tour. He’s finally arrived, and he’s back at the course where it all began.
“I’m gonna shock the world,” he told his agent-manager, Peter Webb, earlier this week. He was joking, of course, but not entirely. Webb’s reply was something about Muhammad Ali using that same line before he became Muhammad Ali, The Greatest.
On the surface, Klauk winning the Players seems like a long shot on the order of Mine That Bird winning the Kentucky Derby. He even had to sweat out getting into the field, starting as fourth alternate. When other players, mostly Europeans, dropped out, Klauk was in.
His management group had been calling the PGA Tour office that handles player commitments so often that Klauk sent bagels, muffins and flowers as a thank you to the tour employees. “He wanted the note with it to say, From Peter Webb and Jeff Klauk, 2009 Players champion,” Webb said, laughing. “But we didn’t do that.”
Klauk obviously has a comfort level at the Stadium Course. When he hung around the course in his high school years, he got used to teeing it up with players like Vijay Singh, Blaine McCallister and David Duval. He took lessons from Duval’s father, Bob. So Klauk is not your average awestruck rookie. Rocco Mediate befriended him in high school and has become his mentor. Mediate was instrumental in steering Klauk to Florida Southern and helping him once he advanced to the Nationwide tour.
It’s been a struggle. Klauk slowly progressed up the ladder, starting on the Hooters Tour. He had some near misses on the Nationwide, finishing 22nd in 2002 when the top 20 got PGA Tour cards the next year. That same year, he was leading the Nationwide Tour Championship in the last round before the tournament was rained out. If he’d won, he would have gotten his PGA Tour card. (He had a two-shot lead after the 10th hole in the final round, but the 54-hole leader was named the winner after the rainout.)
There was also a shoulder surgery and a period when he suffered several seizures, which doctors were never able to explain. So it was a long and winding road to his dream job, which ended when he finished third on the Nationwide money list last year with just more than $400,000. He won once and had seven top-10 finishes to earn his PGA Tour card.
“It’s very hard to get here and it’s obviously very hard to stay here,” Klauk said. “But guys have always told me it’s harder to get here just because there’s so many other guys trying, too.”
Things have gone well this year. He ranks 54th on the money list with more than $637,000. He has had three top-12 finishes, including a 12th at the Sony and a fourth at the Honda. And he played his way into the Players.
“This week is going to be fun,” Klauk said. “I’ve always dreamed of playing this tournament, having grown up out here, mowing the fairways and greens. It’s going to be awesome.”
Jeff was put to work on Dad’s crew to pay off a speeding ticket when he was in high school. He was playing in a junior tournament on Hilton Head Island and got caught in a speed trap on his way home. Fred paid the $350 fine initially, but Jeff had to earn enough money to cover the debt. “I had to mow a lot of greens to pay it off,” Jeff said with a chuckle.
That may be Jeff’s biggest advantage. He doesn’t just know the course from playing it, he knows the humps and bumps from mowing it and maintaining it, too. His least favorite task was using the flymower, a hovering mower he used to cut grass on steep banks along the water at Sawgrass. Jeff operated it with ropes, pulling the mower up and lowering it down the slopes. “I thought, this isn’t going to be good for my golf game,” he said. “I was pretty sore the next day.”
Even the practice rounds have been a bit weird this week for Klauk. He’s played plenty of times with the grandstands in place, but never with the grandstands full.
“I’m just going to approach the week like I’m out there playing with my buddies,” he said. “I’ll be nervous, obviously, but it’ll be a good type of nervous.”
Dad will be nervous, too, though not as nervous as he was earlier in the season. Fred runs his own consulting company now — in fact, he’s on duty as a consultant for the tournament this week — and has the chance to watch Jeff play more often. Fred and his wife, Peggy, were there for Jeff’s debut at this year’s Sony.
“This is an exciting week; we’re trying to keep it low-key like any other round of golf,” Fred said. “I’ve been calm all this week. His mother and I were more nervous on the first tee in Hawaii this year. But Jeff stood up and hit one down the middle of the fairway, and he was leading after the first 11 holes of his first tour event. That was pretty exciting for us.”
Despite their efforts to keep things low-key, this week is bound to be a great one for Team Klauk. The glass slipper analogies are ready and waiting. May the clock never strike midnight.