Jersey Guy: Jim McGovern won the Houston Open 20 years ago, but he’s happy now as a club pro in his native New Jersey

Jim McGovern at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in 1996. He remains just the second New Jersey native to win on the PGA Tour.
Stephen Dunn/ALLSPORT

The head pro at White Beeches Golf and Country Club in northern New Jersey watched a few minutes of the action from last week’s Shell Houston Open. But only in between reviewing merchandise orders, training an apprentice, coordinating junior camps and working on details for the club’s member-guest tournament. The same issues facing most club pros anywhere.

Except this one actually won the Shell Houston Open 20 years ago.

For Jim McGovern that 1993 win turned out to be the peak of a 22-year professional career that included making almost 200 PGA Tour cuts and earning nearly $3 million. He remains just the second New Jersey native to win on the PGA Tour. (Vic Ghezzi won 11 times, including the 1941 PGA Championship.)

“It seems like 100 years ago,” he said last week. “But I can remember just about every step I took on that final round back nine, from almost blowing my ankle out on a sprinkler head on the 11th hole to John Huston missing a short putt on the first playoff hole.”

Then in his third year on Tour, McGovern shot a 67 and 64 at the TPC at the Woodlands before the Saturday round was rained out, shortening the event to 54 holes. “What’s still most vivid to me about that final round was I bogeyed 13 and 14 and got really upset,” he recalled. “As I’m walking off the 14th green, my caddie walked by and mumbled something. I snapped at him. In all honesty that took me away from what had just happened. On the next tee he said ‘Hey, let’s just start over, play four good holes and see what happens.’”

What happened next was better than good. McGovern eagled the 15th and birdied the 18th to finish with a 68, then sank a 35-foot birdie on the second playoff hole to edge Huston. He was one of six first-time winners on Tour in 1993, and earned $587,495 for the season. Yet he never won again, spending years bouncing back and forth between the PGA Tour and Nationwide circuit.

“That win came early in my career,” he said last week. “Mentally I wasn’t as mature as I was physically at that point. After I won I felt like every shot had to be perfect. I went for a higher level, which meant changing this or that. And once you win, everybody wants a piece of you. I never said no to anyone. My wife always told me I should have said no more.”

He regained a Tour card for the 2008 season, making just 11 cuts in 26 events. By then a lack of success and the constant travel away from his wife and four children had taken its toll.

“I didn’t feel great physically,” McGovern said. “I hated being on the road. I knew every day I would call home and hear that I should have seen what Emily, Lizzie, Mel or Sean did at a game that day. I’d hang up and be mad at myself thinking I should have been there.”

“There” meant northern New Jersey. Part of a tight-knit family of nine who grew up in a house on the fourth hole of the Hackensack Golf Club in Oradell, McGovern was a football star at nearby Bergen Catholic high school. A relative latecomer to golf, at 23 he won the highly competitive Met Amateur at Plainfield Country Club in 1988 and turned pro shortly afterward. But leaving the Garden State was not an option for him. “I was asked thousands of times on Tour when I was going to leave New Jersey for a warmer place to live,” he says. “I was never going to do that. This is home for me. I didn’t want to play golf 12 months a year.”

That disappointing 2008 season convinced McGovern it was time to consider making a career change. “Did I think I could win then? Maybe. Did I beat myself up and stay at the range until dark? No way. When that season ended I told my wife I don’t think I can do this. I never felt lonelier in my life then that year. I felt like I had done a lot in golf. I love the game. I don’t know if I put the time in on the range as I probably could have or should have. But I didn’t set out to be the greatest golfer in the world. I just wanted to be the best golfer I could be. That’s all I wanted. I think I reached that point a couple of times. It’s a hard road out there. Would I change anything? I don’t think so. I enjoyed the heck out of it.”

After playing in a handful of Tour events over 2009 and 2010, McGovern interviewed successfully for the head professional job at White Beeches, a 1920 Walter Travis layout, just a few miles from his Bergen County home. As for anyone surprised that a PGA Tour winner would take the private club job, he has a quick answer.

“I tell them, ‘Hey, I have four kids, I have to make some money,’” he laughed. “Some of my friends will chase that ball forever. I get that. I’ll be 50 in two years. Do I want to play the Champions Tour? I think I do. If I get fully exempt one of those first two years, maybe I will chase it. It’s only 20 or so events, no cuts. I can make my ticket and not pay for flight changes. Do I want that? We’ll see. I’ll have two kids in college by then. But I think the membership here would support it.”

The only sign in the White Beeches pro shop of that long-ago PGA Tour win is a framed photo on his office wall showing a smiling McGovern moments after his triumph.

“I don’t actually remember holding up the trophy,” he says. “I was just thinking, what was everyone doing at home? What was my dad saying? I have to get home.”

And now he is.