Go to vindy.com/kokrak to watch video interviews with the people in this story, as well as stay in step with kokrak’s play
By Todd Franko
There was likely a job in sales awaiting Jason Kokrak.
It was a couple years ago, as he struggled at his dream of being a professional golfer.
“I only had enough money in the bank to have one tourney fee and one month’s rent,” said Kokrak, a 2003 graduate of Warren JFK High School. “After that, I had to go out and get a job if I missed the cut.”
Kokrak even went on two job interviews, he remembers.
“Sales …,” he said, nodding his head without saying much else.
But life, like a golf ball, has a funny way of bouncing when you least expect it.
Today at 8:30 a.m. Honolulu time (1:30 p.m. in the Valley), Kokrak tees off in the $5.5 million Sony Open, the first open event on the 2012 PGA Tour.
Kokrak, 26, is the first Valley native in 30 years to make the PGA Tour on a full-time basis.
Today’s a pretty improbable place from where he sat in that job interview two years ago. But to track his youth days here, his Xavier University career, and his stunning play just last fall, you’d have never believed he was headed for a sales job.
“We knew he was going to do it,” said John Diana, the pro at Trumbull County Club and a top local player in his youth, along with his brother, Henry, who has caddied for years on the PGA Tour. “I’ve never seen anybody strike the ball as solid and as far as Jason. Once he knows he fits in, and there’s no one who has something over him, the war’s over. You’re there.”
Diana was among a host of people who watched Kokrak’s meteoric rise in the fall, who toasted him at a celebration dinner in December at TCC, and who are now just hoping for the best.
“I believe he’ll win and he’ll keep going until he plays with that group on the seniors tour,” laughed Bob Todd, his coach at JFK and a neighbor when Kokrak was a kid.
Kokrak was around the right golfers growing up, said Diana. And their stories of young Kokrak are easily told with a smile.
Todd remembers Kokrak walking through yards to cut to the course, and his golf bag was bigger than him.
Dennis Miller, pro at Mill Creek Gold Course, tells of letting Kokrak as a 10-year-old caddy for him at a tourney. By the 10th hole, Miller had to take over the bag as Kokrak was exhausted.
Joe Allen, pro golf instructor at Avalon Lakes, talks about working with Jason’s booming drives. They moved to the back of the range, and in the distance, balls crashed high into the trees. A crowd gathered on the range.
“I said ‘That’s enough,’” recalls Allen. “Too may balls were going over the range into the next fairway and they were going to make me go pick them up.”
Kokrak says it’s that group that’s key to where he is now.
“They were the guys who taught me the game all the way up. They’ve developed me to where, today, I’m a PGA Tour-ready golfer,” said Kokrak, crediting Miller for his length, Diana for his short game, and Allen for his all-around game.
“It’s something we’ve been working on for many years, and it’s finally paid off,” said Kokrak.
One year ago, Kokrak’s goal was to make the 2012 Nationwide Tour, the tour just below the PGA. He got some invites to 2011 Nationwide events — and his train just took off.
It started slow, but by July, he started making more cuts and cashing in. Miller got a chance to play with Kokrak this summer as his game took off.
“I went to [Mill Creek] the next day and said ‘Guys, I just played with the best golfer I ever played with in my life,’” Miller said. “I truly believe he’s in the top 100 in the world — he was that impressive.”
A key point in that surge was an event in Pittsburgh on Labor Day weekend. He didn’t play all that well. He dismissed his caddy in mid-round. But he got some down time after the tourney, came home to Warren and relaxed for a week.
That next week, he won in Boise, Idaho. A few weeks later, he crushed the field in Miami, and earned his PGA Tour card by October’s end.
Todd was there when the card was official, along with Kokrak’s dad, Ken, his grandmother and others.
“To see him come off the 72nd hole and across the bridge, it was special,” said Todd, fighting back some tears. “I stepped back and let it be a family moment, and Jason threw his arms around me and said “Coach, get in here ...”
It’s a new game now, in some ways.
Kokrak affiliated himself with mega sports agency IMG World. His clubs are still Cleveland, he’s playing Titleist golf balls. There’s chatter of a few sponsorships with a couple companies.
“I had opportunities to switch club companies. I stuck with the company that got me to this point,” said Kokrak. “I did not see a reason to sell out for an extra few bucks. You’re going to win more on the course than you make off of it.”
He talked regretfully of having to switch caddies — from the guy on the Nationwide Tour who helped him earn his card — to a PGA veteran who knows the courses.
He has full playing status through the first several weeks of the Tour in Hawaii and out West. As it swings to Florida, his play will dictate his future entries.
It’s a grind, and that’s what he’s been prepping for.
“Keeping a healthy mind is most important,” Kokrak said. “You have to stay focused for 18 holes each day, every day for six weeks straight sometimes. There are some guys who play 14 weeks in a row. I look up to those guys. It’s a lot of strain on your mind.”
He learned from his fall surge that time off can help. His two wins both came after taking a week off.
Kevin Lynch is IMG Golf’s vice president and is managing Kokrak. His favorite Kokrak traits are his toughness and competitiveness.
“He is a tough kid and is anxious to prove that he can be one of the best players in the world,” said Lynch. “A lot of modern players get caught up trying to make perfect golf swings. Jason is more concerned with getting the ball into the hole and competing to win.”
Kokrak intends to also keep the trend of being around the right people to learn.
“I like having my peers around me. It reassures me that I’m in the right place. There’s a lot of camaraderie on tour,” he said — at least off the course.
“On the No. 1 tee, you still want to beat everybody else. That’s the competitive edge we all have.”
The No. 1 tee is 1:30 today in the Valley. And the guys back home will be watching — and hoping.
“The key on Tour,” Diana said, “is how long can you play good — not how good can you play today; or in a week. That’s how you make a living out there. You need to be cocky. If you’re not, you will get your head caved in. Jason just showed confidence at every step. Some guys don’t get that confidence.
“It was the joke on tour: the rookie would come out, and a veteran player would come over and say you have to change your swing; you’re not going to be able to compete with that.”
Diana takes on an “Are you crazy” look, with this belief in how Kokrak will operate at this new level:
“Hey — this is what got me here. This is what I’m going with. Come and get me.”