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Focus, faith and fore



Published: Sun, September 25, 2011 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Todd Franko (Contact)


Jason Kokrak is the longest-hitting professional golfer in the world.

And the 2003 Warren JFK graduate may become the first Valley golfer in almost 30 years to get a PGA Tour card.

Yet the biggest issue he’s pondering at the moment is his cellphone number.

“I’m getting like 30 phone messages a day, and there are 15 text messages, and I try to get through them all,” he said. “And the next day, it starts all over.”

He’s now thinking of getting his third phone number of the golf season.

It’s been that kind of summer for Kokrak. And it all came to a head last weekend in Boise, Idaho, on the Nationwide Tour — the professional golf level just below the big-show PGA Tour.

Kokrak started the day tied for the lead, then shot a 67 to win by two strokes and win $130,500. The win and the money put him in 13th place in the Nationwide earnings list for 2011.

The placing is significant because the top 25 earners get automatic spots on next year’s PGA Tour. There are six events left in the season that ends Oct. 30. Kokrak was in 70th place before the win.

And today, he’s in the fourth round of the Soboba Golf Classic in San Jacinto, Calif., and is five shots off the lead.

After going 6-under par the first two days, he shot even par today.

It’s a real-life reality show for Kokrak, but this is where he expected to be. And he expects to be higher — as do his family and the host of Valley supporters around him.

“I could not have asked for better timing,” said Kokrak. “This is not the only level I want to win on. There’s another level — the PGA.”

It’s been a steady ride through this summer, if not his whole career.

He credits a top junior and high-school career here in the Valley with getting him ready for collegiate golf at Xavier University in Cincinnati. That collegiate career readied him for the pro tours.

“They had us playing so much golf. We played everywhere,” Kokrak said of his junior days.

His dad, Kenny, got him started in golf at age 4. Kokrak credits his high-school coaches, Rob Heltzel and Bob Todd, along with local golf pros John Diana, Dennis Miller and Joe Allen for steering his game at all different levels.

“It started with my dad. But the rest of those guys taught me things about ball striking and what my body was doing, and cause and effect.”

Diana said Kokrak’s arrival has been just a matter of time.

“There was no question he was going to do it,’’ said Diana, head golf professional at Trumbull Country Club.

“There’s no one who hits the ball farther and more accurate. His ball-striking ability is, to me, better than anyone out there.”

Just off Diana’s office at Trumbull is the par 4, No. 6 hole. It measures 343 yards. When Kokrak is home and testing clubs with Diana, the back of the green is his landing area for drives.

Diana’s among the host of Valley golf instructors who’ve been saying for years, “Watch this Kokrak kid ...”

Allen, who coaches out of Avalon Lakes, goes a step further than saying “watch.”

“I don’t know the limits of that young man. I’ll say this — if he gets on the Tour, he’ll have a green jacket by 2015 or ’16.”

The green jacket is golf’s jewel — the prize for winning The Masters. That projects a lot for a guy who’s been toiling in the pros since 2007.

It’s taken some work. After graduating college in 2007, Kokrak hit smaller golf tours and found stride in the eGolf Tour based out of Charlotte, N.C., where Kokrak lives when he’s not at his dad’s Warren home. His mom lives in Canada, and his brother lives in Detroit. He led the eGolf tour in earnings in 2010 and is leading in 2011. He earned part-time access to this year’s Nationwide and has made the most of it — cashing in on the last six events dating back to July 31.

“Everybody was hoping [the PGA] would happen right away [in 2007]. I knew I was going to get to that level,” Kokrak said. “It’s a matter of working your way up. It’s a little uncomfortable with new courses and new cities all the time. I have a comfort level now. Now — it’s just about playing golf.”

Diana said making the PGA Tour is luck and timing.

“Jason just had to bite the bullet longer than others,” Diana said. “He handled the process fantastically. He was never ready to chuck it in. That’s just the way he is. That’s part of his deal. He’s just that good. He steps up, and he thinks he can win all the time.”

His driving ability is a difference-maker. He currently averages 320.1 yards off the tee — the longest of any of world golf’s biggest tours. The biggest hitter on the PGA Tour is J.B. Holmes, who averages 318 yards. That length extends to Kokrak’s irons. He’s flying into the green one or two clubs less than other players.

Kokrak said it was learning to not hit his driver on certain holes that helped last week.

He’s also learned from other players — some of them are rookies like him, others are seasoned veterans from the PGA Tour.

“Being a rookie, there have been many guys who have talked to me and explained about playing at a higher level,” Kokrak said. “It’s hard because in a way, we’re all out here for same reason — to win, which means beating the guys you talk to. But you’re also together with the same goal.”

Proudly watching to the side is Jason’s dad, Kenny, who runs Masters La France Cleaners in Warren.

“I told him to work hard — he doesn’t need to be a fourth-generation dry- cleaner,” laughed Kenny.

The hot, hard work of dry-cleaning has rubbed off somewhat in Jason’s work ethic, which Kenny admires.

“Jason’s never had any financial backing. So these last three years, it’s been himself; his dime. So when you have to make your own money, it drives you,” Kenny said.

That tough Kokrak work ethic is evident even in the moment, as Kenny points out. Three weeks ago at a Nationwide event in Cannonsburg, Pa., Kenny, his other son, Matt, and Coach Todd went to watch.

Jason was not happy with how his caddy was reading yardages. So after nine holes, he excused the caddy from his services, looked over at his brother, Matt, and put him on the bag.

Kenny credits Jason’s focus and determination to his Catholic faith and lessons instilled in him by Father William Petrunak, who died in 2010.

“Whenever Jason would come home, they’d always find time for lunch. The lessons from Father Petrunak have always been in the back of Jason’s mind.”

All those lessons — and it may be time.

It’s been 30 years since the last Valley native established himself on the Tour. That was John Hamarik with 23 events in 1984. Jerry McGee had a great career in the 1970s, and George Bellino got a Tour taste in that same era. Just this year, Austintown native Garrett Frank qualified for a PGA Tour event while making a career on the Canadian PGA Tour.

And now it’s Kokrak’s chance.

“He’s going to do it,” Kenny said.

“I’ve known it for a long time. I just wasn’t sure when.”

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes e-mails about stories and our newspaper. E-mail him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on vindy.com.


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