Jonathan Kaye: In Your Face

January 26, 2012

Jonathan Kaye's friends tell good stories. Like the time he slept in his car the night before the final round of the 1992 Southwest Amateur, shuffled his bed-headed self across the driving range the next morning and declared, "I'm going to go take a shower. Then I'm going to beat all you guys."

And then shot 64. Or the time he goaded Greg Norman into hitting his ball in the water. Or the round Kaye got into it with Jerry Pate. Or the night he bunked with his caddie in a Tour locker room. Or the day he won a tournament with a competitor yelling in his face…

What Kaye's friends don't know is whether pro golf's king of quarrels can keep up the pace. He is married now, a dog-cuddling homebody who will soon be cultivating his own organic garden. It's enough to make you wonder if the legend of J. Kaye can survive happiness, prosperity and wheatgrass. Kaye remains more infamous than famous despite a breakout 2003 season in which he won the Buick Classic and flirted with a top-20 world ranking — still known less for his game than for a mysterious two-month suspension in 2001 and a stated desire to dunk PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem in the pond beside TPC at Sawgrass's 18th green. He is one pro who hasn't been pounded into homogenized, sanitized putty by the Tour. The flip side? Even his mother, while intensely proud of him, admits Kaye is "sometimes endearing, sometimes annoying."

"Jonathan was always… I guess the politically correct term would be confident," says Tom Woodard, Denver Parks and Recreation director of golf. "He was a cocky little kid who wouldn't hesitate to play for a few dollars." Kaye knocked his ball along the city streets between his father's Denver home and City Park Golf Course, a scruffy muni where he'd hang out 12 hours a day. He was a regular in City Park's fierce weekend skins games and cursed so much on the course he became the unofficial thesaurus of the Colorado Junior Golf Association. (What's another word for fiddlesticks?)

University of Colorado golf coach Mark Simpson, a deeply religious man, knew of Kaye's reputation when Kaye walked on to the team in 1990 but took a chance because, he says, "we're in the business of helping young men." Their relationship got off to a rocky start. Kaye wondered why he hadn't gotten a scholarship — "I'd beaten every player on that team" — and chafed at Simpson's discipline. Kaye soon got a partial scholarship and kept bringing color to Colorado: He and teammate Grant Wittenwyler, now one of his two agents, were driving to the state championship in Pueblo one day when Wittenwyler flipped their car 3 ½ times at 75 mph. "The car next to us drifted into our lane and Grant overreacted," Kaye says. Though he wasn't wearing his seat belt, Kaye escaped with only a cut toe.

If Kaye was reckless, he was also fearless. As a junior in 1992, he beat Phil Mickelson, already a PGA Tour winner, on the second playoff hole at the King Arizona Intercollegiate Invitational at Tucson Country Club. "I hadn't come home until 3 a.m. that day," Kaye says. "All my buddies were at the University of Arizona, so I'd partied with them."

As a senior Kaye was an All-America candidate, and the Buffaloes a contender for the NCAA Championship. They never got there. Simpson and Kaye's tense relationship snapped at the 1993 Big Eight Championship at Kansas's famed Prairie Dunes Country Club.

"Jonathan had been up all night with girlfriend problems, so he was on edge," says his friend and former CU teammate Bobby Kalinowski, who plays on the Nationwide Tour. "He got a two-shot penalty for bad behavior because he threw his club down and then tossed it over his shoulder. He said, 'You're going to give me a penalty for that? That shouldn't be a penalty. This should be a penalty.' Then he slammed a trash can — one of those little green ones next to the ball-washers. An Oklahoma player's parents complained."

Simpson, now in his 28th year at CU, claims not to recall why he booted Kaye, only that "he couldn't abide by the rules of the team. He was a great player, and a joy to be around 95 percent of the time. The other 5 percent of the time he was a jerk, and you wanted to grab him and throw him against a wall and say, 'Wake up! You're wrong!' "

Kaye found another sparring partner at that summer's Fox Hill Invitational, an unofficial Colorado Golf Association event. Before the final round one member of his foursome, a commercial pilot, tried to hand the group's scorecard to Kaye's caddie (now wife), Jennifer Sweeney. Kaye wasn't having it. "That's not how we do it in the CGA," he told the pilot. "High man on the first hole keeps score."

There was something about Kaye, so young and self-assured, that elevated his rival's blood pressure. The man grew incensed when Kaye jokingly proposed to match his score against the other three players' best ball. So he accepted the mock offer: They would wager $300 against the title to Kaye's car.

"We're veteran amateurs and he's a college kid," says longtime Colorado amateur standout Rick DeWitt, who was in on the bet. "We're thinking we're going to kill him."

Kaye canned a four-foot par putt on the 1st hole after the pilot flubbed a five-footer and made bogey, thus earning the unwanted scorekeeping task. On the green a few holes later, steaming and screaming, he accused Kaye and Sweeney of standing in his through-line.

"He came over so we were standing face to face," Kaye recalls, "and he said, 'I'm not going to let you putt this in peace.' I said, 'Do whatever you want,' and I looked right at him and made the putt. That really set him off."

Fox Hill's pro hustled out of the clubhouse to intervene, telling Kaye he could either zip it or be DQ'd. The epilogue: "Jonathan goes on and shoots 66, beats our best ball and wins the tournament," DeWitt says. "The madder people got at him, the better he played."

{C} Kaye'S story begins with conflict. Joel Kaye and Ellen Grodinsky had their only child on August 2, 1970, in Denver. In 1972, Joel struck a deal with the government to alter his military commitment by serving as a doctor in Munich instead of in Vietnam — "I was totally opposed to the war," he says — and took Ellen and young Jonathan to Germany.

The couple separated after two years overseas. Joel relocated to nearby Wiesbaden and Ellen worked as a counselor at an adolescent medical clinic in Frankfurt; Jonathan shuttled between his parents, who shared custody. Then, just before Thanksgiving 1977, Ellen and Jonathan returned abruptly to San Francisco. Joel, who was considering a job offer in Denver, found a note saying he would hear from Ellen's lawyer. "She basically kidnapped him," Joel says.

A custody judge ruled for Ellen. "Jonathan was already in school and everything," Joel says. "It made sense for him to stay where he was and not be jerked around again. [But] it wasn't very pretty." Ellen soon remarried and settled in Phoenix, while Joel moved back to Denver — an arrangement Jonathan didn't mind.

"I don't remember the divorce that much," he says. "I know how it worked out later in life, and it gave me the best of both worlds: having one parent in Arizona, where it's 150 degrees in the summer, and the other in Colorado, where it's nice in the summer. Unbeknownst to them, they were helping me out."

As were Kaye's paternal grandparents, Jerry and Shirley, who took an interest in Kaye's golf. Shirley was a club champion at Century Country Club in Phoenix; her father was once Chicago's long-drive champion. So golf is in Kaye's blood, but he was also shaped by another family trait: theatricality. Jonathan's aunt is Broadway actress Judy Kaye (Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia). Tony Award winner Judy is the family's most noted performer, but hardly its only one.

After he earned his card at Qualifying School in 1994, Kaye's first steps on Tour were comical. He showed up at the Hawaiian Open wearing white tube socks. On the driving range at Pebble Beach, he kept retrieving the same tee until an exasperated Lanny Wadkins tossed a handful of pegs at Kaye's feet.

By the time rookie Kaye got to Williamsburg, Virginia, for the 1995 Anheuser-Busch Classic, he had missed 12 straight cuts. Paired with 1976 U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate and Richard Zokol, he triggered another drama with his lucky ballmark, a 50-cent piece.

"It's early in the morning, and the sun is reflecting off this thing," Pate recalls. "So I say to Jonathan, 'Could you mark your ball with something other than that manhole cover?' "

Kaye cited the Rules of Golf, which let players mark with anything they please. Pate cited a Tour protocol that suggests a penny or dime.

"So he gets pissed, goes back to his bag and pulls out a quarter," Pate says. "Now he's jacking with me, which is fine. We move on, and he's making birdies and eagles and the next thing you know he's 8 under par. He is flat golfing his ball."

Kaye stumbled late, shooting 68 on his way to a T27 finish.

"He was a hot dog, but I've talked to him since then and he really is a good kid," Pate says. "He's an asset. You need characters on Tour."

Kaye's character was pure City Park, and he held fast to it. "It's sort of a cowboy mentality," says Kaye's agent Peter Schaffer. "I play there all the time, and there's an underdog thing, an angry defiance, like, 'We're City Park and proud of it.' "

At the Canadian Open later in his rookie season, Kaye was on the 1st green with fellow CU alum Steve Jones during a practice round when they saw Jack Nicklaus ambling up the fairway. Neither man had played with the Bear, so they waved him up.

"I'm going to blow it by Jack," Kaye whispered to Jones as the three men walked to the 2nd tee. The rookie hit first, creased it long and straight, and flashed Jones a cocksure smile. Nicklaus and Jones then hit their tee shots. "Well, we walk up to our balls, and Jack's got him by 10 yards," says Jones, laughing at the memory.

"They both blew it by me," Kaye says, adding a caveat: He was playing a balata ball.

Kaye proved he belonged on Tour two weeks later when he took a 1-stroke lead into the 54th and final hole of the rain-shortened Quad City Classic. He bogeyed and lost by a stroke to D.A. Weibring, but the $108,000 payday secured Kaye's card for 1996. "I played pretty solid, shot 65 and learned a lot," he says. "It just took a while for it to sink in, I guess."

It was a Donald Ross learning curve, full of humps and bumps and slippery slopes. Riding the high of his second-place finish, Kaye asked Greg Norman, then ranked No. 1 in the world, to join him for a practice round the next week at the Buick Challenge in Georgia. Norman accepted and the two played uneventful golf until they reached the par-5 15th, where Kaye used a driver off the fairway to go for the green in two. The ball took off low and skimmed across the water hazard fronting the green, stopping just short of the putting surface. It was a lucky shot, but when Norman prepared to lay up with an iron, Kaye couldn't resist:

"And they call you the Shark?"

Rising to the bait, Norman pulled out his 3-wood — and hit his approach in the water. Was he peeved at the rookie? Kaye never found out. "I just kept walking and laughing," he says.

{C} On a sweltering afternoon last August, Kaye was on the practice green at Oak Hill Country Club, preparing for the 85th PGA Championship. "I'm just trying to fit in, man, and not piss anybody off," he said. He then took aim at a distant cup — his intended line nearly through the legs of Colin Montgomerie — swatted his ball and watched it skitter across the grass. "Practicing is overrated," he added, admitting that while he had toured the course, he'd played several holes only once.

There are two types of players on the PGA Tour: Those who conform to its authority and those who soon find themselves fined, suspended or looking for another line of work. One veteran pro, when asked his opinion of the Bell Canadian Open's new host course, replied, "It's nice, especially coming from that Deutsche Bank tournament [at the TPC of Boston]. But don't quote me by name. It would probably be a $5,000 fine for hurting the tournament. It's scary, man. It's almost un-American."

Plenty of players before Kaye have tested the Tour's strict discipline. Mac O'Grady and Ken Green zinged the powers that be — Green openly enjoyed a beer while playing with Arnold Palmer — and while O'Grady and Green were fined, they also became fan favorites.

Kaye's most damaging clash with the Tour came at the 2001 Michelob Championship at Kingsmill Golf Club, played less than a month after 9/11. The co-leader after a second-round 67, Kaye was heading to the locker room. As the story goes, a security guard refused him entry without his player ID badge, which Kaye then tracked down and clipped provocatively to the zipper of his pants. The guard took offense, and Finchem slapped Kaye with a two-month suspension.

A confidentiality agreement bars the Tour and Kaye from talking publicly about the incident, but GOLF MAGAZINE has learned that the guard was seen chatting at length with Kaye about his round before he demanded Kaye's badge. Chris DiMarco urged the security guard to admit Kaye, but the answer was still no. Yet the guard did not stop Vijay Singh, who raised his middle finger in lieu of ID on his way into the locker room, according to a player who was standing nearby. (A spokesman for the security firm declined comment.) It was a hard lesson on the star system, but valuable for Kaye.

"The incident was completely blown out of proportion," says agent Schaffer. "But everything happens for a reason, and in the big picture it helped Jonathan mature."

Shoulder surgery had sidelined Kaye for most of the 1996 and '97 seasons, and he sank to 190th on the money list in '98. But a runner-up finish at Q-School that year got him back on Tour, where he has since earned more than $6 million.

And now Kaye is coming off his best year. He won the Buick Classic last June for his first Tour victory, which featured a 254-yard hybrid-iron shot to set up his winning eagle. He played in the final group (without victory or incident) in consecutive weeks at the WGC-NEC Invitational and Deutsche Bank Championship. One of the game's longest hitters and purest ball strikers, the self-taught Kaye finished 16th on the 2003 money list, with more than $2.4 million, and kicked off 2004 with his first start in the winners-only Mercedes Championship.

He was a welcome addition to the field, for the Tour can always use more personality. The public's apathy for players not named Tiger was thrown into high relief last season, when Woods's major-championship bagel coincided with severely depressed TV ratings.

"What's killing the PGA Tour is an epidemic of multiple no-personality disorder," says veteran pro John Maginnes. "The Tour needs guys like Jonathan Kaye. He is a beautiful human being. I enjoy playing with him. I enjoy drinking beer with him. All the guys like him, and when he wins a couple more times — which he will — the rest of America will know him."

Longtime Kaye watchers note that he was never the best junior or amateur player but elevated his game at every level, a trait that may portend more victories sooner rather than later. He also plays well on tough, classic courses — the kind that host major championships. (In addition to his Buick Classic win at Westchester Country Club, Kaye scored top 10s at the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields, the WGC-NEC Invitational at Firestone and the Tour Championship at Champions Golf Club.)

Despite such promising signs, Kaye still has his lapses. He was booed off the 18th green at Pebble Beach in 2001 for directing an obscene gesture at a heckler, but he's not above apologies: "It was a good day that had gone bad…. Obviously I should have been above it, but I wasn't because I was hot."

Off the course, he is hard to dislike. On the way to last year's PGA Championship his flight got stuck on the tarmac at Chicago's O'Hare International for three hours, but Kaye refused to succumb to a bad-air day. He tried to coax Jennifer into pitching him a McDonald's hamburger over several other coach passengers. (She had scored cheap tickets in different rows for a savings of $150.) He chatted up the cattleman in the next seat, and fielded a good-luck wish from a nearby junior golfer with an enthusiastic, "Thanks, man!"

After so many rebellions, Kaye seems unshakably happy. He married Jennifer in Boulder in December 2002, after a 10-year courtship that began with a putting contest at CU's Flatirons Golf Course, where she worked and the golf team practiced. ("I won, as I remember it," she says.) Joel, Ellen and Craig Dean, Ellen's husband of 25 years, walked together at the wedding. "Jonathan says he's feeling more peaceful," Ellen says. "They're a good match, Jon and Jen."

The Kayes are renovating the kitchen in their Phoenix home, where Jonathan does the cooking. They plan to put in a garden, where they may sow the special crop that grew around their old place and accounted for Kaye's unusual hobby in the Tour media guide: jalapeNo farming. The Kayes live well, but they can't resist a bargain, whether it's cheap airline seats or cheap eats. Still, Kaye insists he has nothing against golf's upper-crusty tendencies. He has even joined a country club, Silver Leaf in North Scottsdale, but says his life hasn't changed much since he broke through at Westchester.

While he has a few buddies on Tour, Kaye tends to stick close to his family and a few friends. Circle Kaye includes caddie Rick Caniglia, a grade-school pal who knew nothing of golf when Kaye hired him in 1998. Their antics are well known — including the time they couldn't find a motel room and crashed at the TPC at Avenel locker room until the cleaning crew ratted them out at 2:30 a.m. Caniglia, his wife and 4-year-old daughter are an extended part of Kaye's family, in and out of each other's houses unannounced. Kaye is rarely seen without Jennifer, who quit caddying because of a sore back and a nervous stomach. A former Futures Tour player, she plays matches with Jonathan at the TPC of Scottsdale — Jennifer gets five a side, loser does the dishes — where Brisket, their schipperke-Pomeranian, runs off his leash.

"Jonathan wouldn't be playing as well as he's played if he hadn't grown up a lot," says Pate, who pulled then-Tour commissioner Deane Beman into the water with him after winning the 1982 Players Championship, inspiring Kaye's Finchem fantasy. "If that 'manhole cover' thing had happened 15 years earlier I might have threatened him, but I saw a kid who was immature, with a lot of talent, who needed someone to calm him down. I keep telling him, 'Put all that other stuff behind you, because it's yesterday's newspaper. Do your thing and be less quick to judge. You're going to be a world beater.' "

"I think some of Jonathan's anger was from the divorce, although he'd never admit that," says Joel Kaye, now a pediatrician in Boulder. "Some of it was immaturity, and a lot of us have been waiting for that to go away. Now it's happening. The suspension was probably good for him. It woke him up."

As Kaye says of his past indiscretions, "I was never really angry at anybody but myself — just being a perfectionist. I had my moments when I was younger, when I was crazy and did crazy things. It was all in good fun. I never meant to hurt anybody."

Back in Denver, the display case at City Park will soon hold a new curio: Kaye's Buick Classic trophy. The former Rocky Mountain rebel is now a hero here, and at 33 he is playing for far more than the title of his car. Which invites the question: If Kaye could reach the Tour with the whole world in his face, how great might he be if his only enemy is par?