Everybody has been talking about 2009 as the Year of the Young Guns, and maybe Ryo Ishikawa, Danny Lee and Rory McIlroy will catch an elevator ride to the top, although history suggests otherwise. For every Tiger Woods there are lots of Ty Tryons — and, less dramatically, blue-chip prospects who never justify the hype. Golf is a fickle, many-sided game, which is something pundits forget in their endless search for the Next Big Thing.
This week, my student and close friend, 31-year-old PGA Tour rookie Jeff Klauk, will be the most excited entrant in Players Championship history. Qualifying for the tournament was Jeff’s top goal for 2009, ahead of winning rookie of the year. The TPC Sawgrass is where Jeff cut his teeth as a golfer — and also where he cut the grass. His dad, Fred, was the course superintendent for two decades before retiring last year, and Jeff used to work on the grounds crew. The TPC was literally his backyard.
But what makes this one of the season’s best feel-good stories is where Jeff came from more recently. When he graduated from Florida Southern, where he won more collegiate titles than alums Lee Janzen and Rocco Mediate combined, Jeff was a can’t-miss prospect. Well, Jeff missed. By the time we joined up at the end of 2005, he was finishing his fourth year on the Nationwide tour, and he didn’t even register among the 1,300 players in the World Ranking. His game was in tatters, and his confidence was shot. His health was no better than his golf, as he was ravaged by a bad back and two seizures that have still never been explained.
We changed some things — ball position, leg action, practice routines and other stuff you read about in magazines — but maybe more important were the things that we didn’t change: Jeff’s tireless work ethic; his desire to maximize his ability; his passion to compete against the best. Jeff will get to do that this week, and after what he’s been through, the island-green 17th won’t scare him.
We love shiny new stars, and the game needs them, but there’s something possibly even more compelling about guys like Jeff — or ’09 winners Michael Bradley, Brian Gay and Pat Perez — who lost their way, then found it again. Whose success took longer than expected. Who worried it would never come. Those are adversities almost every golfer can relate to.
Cody Barden is director of instruction at White Columns Country Club in Alpharetta, Ga.