Veteran teaching pro comes up just short in personal quests at Kiawah

Veteran teaching pro comes up just short in personal quests at Kiawah

Jeff Coston is a teaching pro from Blaine, Wash.
David Walberg / SI

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — There is the tournament, the tournament we will all watch this weekend, and the tournament within the tournament. How many players are in the field? That's how many tournaments there are.

Tiger and Vijay are playing to win another major. That's the main draw. Carl Pettersson is playing to win his first major. Another tournament. Blake Adams is playing to win his first Tour event. Yet another. John Daly is playing to post his first top-10 in a major since 1995. Still another.

On Friday, the teaching pro Jeff Coston had not one but three private events going on. Three tournaments within the tournament. He was playing to make the cut. He was playing to be low club pro. He was playing to see how low the oldest, and very possibly the skinniest, man in the field could go. He's 56, a little over six feet tall, and he can't weigh a pound over 180, and that's with sunblock slathered on his face.

Here's the point of this whole tournament-within-the-tournament thing: this 94th PGA Championship means as much to Jeff Coston as it does to Tiger Woods. You wouldn't know that, and you couldn't know that, unless you got yourself connected to the story of the man making the swings. That's one of the great things about coming to a tournament in person. If you watch on TV, some producer dictates the story to you. Out on the course on your own, you can go any which way you want.

Through 23 holes of the tournament, Coston, a Seattle native who runs a teaching school in Blaine, Wash., was one over par. How spectacular is that? At age 56? For a teaching pro? This guy was beating most of the free world!

And so the Friday drama became, what would the next 13 holes bring? Would he make the cut? Be low club pro? Get on the leaderboard? As long as there are golfers with dreams, these stories will play out.

His good golf was no accident. He swings beautifully, he plays smart golf, he won once on the Nationwide tour, and his skill has barely diminished over the years. He's the Harry Vardon of golf in the Pacific Northwest, where he's won events forever, all while making a living on the lesson tee. His own swing is beautifully on plane. It almost looks like a machine is producing it.

Later, when his Friday round was over, Coston said he wasn't thinking about results. He never thinks about results. He just thinks about the shot he has to play, and how it sets up the next one. He said he wasn't thinking about being low club pro or making the cut or getting on the leaderboard or how well he was playing at age 56. He must be a stronger man than most.

The fact is, he made that birdie on five on Friday, got himself to one over for the tournament and then pulled an Adam Scott (four straight bogeys). He made the turn at five over. He had to know he was near the cutline, if he were one to think about such things.

The first five holes of the back nine were all playing in a 30-mile-an-hour, left-to-right, off-the-ocean crosswind on Friday. Coston's tee time was 2:20 p.m., and his group featured Bud Cauley, a major young talent still learning the game, and Robert Rock, the hatless Englishman with the nice head of hair who stared down Tiger Woods en route to victory at Abu Dhabi in January. Coston said he did not notice the hair, but he did notice that Rock was a nice playing partner.

The course is a joke. You could be the best golfer in your after-work nine-hole league and have no chance of breaking 45 for nine holes. As Graeme McDowell said, and I paraphrase, it's a target golf course on American linksland. It is a triumph of marketing that it gets a long line of duffers paying a couple hundred dollars to play it, enticed, no doubt, by the spectacular beauty of the place. Coston's 2:20 tee time got pushed to 2:40, not because of any sort of rain delay but because the golf was too slow to get the players off on time. With light to 8:30 p.m., there was question as to whether Coston's group, second-to-last of the day, would be able to finish.

It is criminal for a round of golf to take nearly six hours, but when the course is 7,500 yards long and the walks from greens to tees are like making a trek through the Outback, that's going to happen. Coston, as you might expect, had nothing but praise for the course. That's smart. You can play a course better if you like it, or if you can convince yourself that you like it.

He made a good par on 10. He made a good par on 11. Twelve is a par-4, about 400 yards, a driver and a hybrid, at least, for the 20 club pros in the field in Friday's fierce wind. "I had a bad lie on the tee," Coston said later. It was sort of true. The wind was so strong you had to aim for a waste area about 30 yards left of the left rough.

Wouldn't you know it: Coston's ball finished in the waste area. His second finished in a dune. The sandy divot of one of his practice swings finished in his caddie's face. ("Sorry!" Coston said.) His beautiful pitch shot finished 30 feet from the hole. (Getting on the green was a minor miracle and Coston, a deeply religious man, knows something about miracles.) Three putts later he had his second double bogey of the tournament.

He was seven over, with a cut that turned out to be six. His chances of getting it to six were slim. Why? Because on the last six holes at Kiawah, in Friday's wind, there was no way to get the ball close enough to the hole to have a chance of making a birdie. That was true for Tiger. That was true for Robert Rock. That was true for Jeff Coston, who had a 36-hole score that was one stroke better than those posted by Matt Kuchar and Rickie Fowler.

Coston played the last six very well, just two over par, and missed the cut by three. Not a single club pro made the cut. One club pro, Bob Sowards, had a better two-day total than Coston. Sowards missed the cut by one.

"I had lapses in judgment that weren't in character for me," Coston said when it was over. It wasn't the wind. It wasn't the pressure. It wasn't his age. It wasn't relative inexperience in major-championship golf. It's just the nature of the game. That's what Jeff Coston was saying in Friday's gloaming.

The deepest truth, who knows? He may not know himself.

"It was difficult," he said. Every golfer in the field had his own story. Every golfer in the field was saying the same thing.

"That's my story," he said. "And I'm sticking to it."