ST. LOUIS — Gary Woodland is having the tournament of his life, and he’s not alone: one of his former collegiate rivals is doing the same. Meet Ben Kern, who birdied his final hole to jump inside the cut line and become the only club professional to make the weekend here at Bellerive Country Club.
Kern has the most distinctive look at the PGA Championship. On Friday, he repped a light blue shirt with white FootJoy arm sleeves, Oakley shades and a saggy Titleist bucket hat. He checks in at 6-foot-1, 275 lbs., rocks a fat goatee and just celebrated his 34th birthday. (He’s the same age as Woodland.)
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Is Kern playing the tournament of his life? Perhaps, but also continuing the heater he started last week. Down in Tyler, Texas, he buzz-sawed his way to a two-stroke win at the Texas State Open, with second and third round scores of 64-62. Moments after his winning putt dropped, his wife and daughter congratulated him on the green, PGA Tour style. The next day he jetted up to St. Louis.
“I know deep down I’ve got a little bit of game left,” he said Friday.”Obviously this week it’s definitely shining through a little bit.”
Kern’s game is plenty long, but it’s also straight. He’s hit 24 of 28 fairways, and any pro out here will tell you that’s how birdies are created at Bellerive. When Mother Nature stepped in to postpone the second round, he was 10th in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee. Everywhere else, he’s been pretty average, which is what you might expect out of a club professional.
On Saturday, when he’s the only one (of 20) left in the field (fingers crossed), we’ll be reminded of his everyman tendencies. He enjoys his golf, but also his softball, his fishing and his family. This is Woodland’s 223rd Tour event. It’s Kern’s first. Two months ago, Woodland was between starts at the Masters and the U.S. Open. Kern was between jobs at Diamondback Golf Club and Georgetown Country Club.
And yet, the Texan scratched out a 71 on Thursday to match another notable Texan, Jordan Spieth. On Friday, he shot three under on his last 12 holes to march back to even par. He’s tied with Pebble Beach champ Ted Potter Jr., just a stroke behind world-beater Tommy Fleetwood. He’s also ahead of an impressive list of PGA Tour luminaries, including Patrick Reed, Henrik Stenson and Bubba Watson.
“I’ve been telling a lot of people that I’m surprised that I’m not as nervous as I thought I would be,” Kern said. “Which is kind of throwing me off, which is actually kind of keeping me in the moment.”
It’s keeping Kern within shouting distance of Woodland, whom he once competed against during their college days. Both players arrived at Big 12 universities in 2003, Woodland at Kansas, some 270 miles from Bellerive, and Kern at rival Kansas State, about an hour west of that. Woodland’s college career was more remarkable, sure, but peer through the K-State record books and Kern’s name is all over the place.
At the peak of their senior years, Woodland finished T7 at the Big 12 Championships, and Kern was just five strokes back, T19. (There are a bunch of other fun names in there, too: Anthony Kim (13), Robert Streb (T34), Jhonnatan Vegas (T45), Martin Piller (T14), Peter Malnati (T34).)
And since? Professional golf happened. Kern tried his hand on the mini tours for a handful of years, never quite cracking it. You’ve heard that story before. Some make it; many others don’t. Kern’s family took priority in his life, and he found a head professional gig that lets him compete enough to keep him happy.
In 2017, he played in 15 North Texas PGA Section events and claimed the Ben Hogan Stroke Average award. It’s not the PGA Tour, but it’s still pretty cool. And now, he’s another golfer who is dialed in, enjoying the hell out of his courtesy car and his range sessions next to the big boys. “My main goal is to have fun this week” Kern said. “I knew if I had fun I would play well and so far it’s working out great.”