By Joe Scalzo
As he stood at the tee box of the final hole of the tournament that changed his life, Jason Kokrak had a choice to make.
He had just eagled the 17th hole — for the second straight day — to move into second place at the Frys.com Open, one shot behind the leader, Jonas Blixt.
His heart told him to go for the win, but to do so, he’d have to hit a 320-yard drive over the water hazard on the par-4 18th.
A good drive could lead to a victory, a $900,000 check and an invitation to next year’s Masters.
A bad drive could lead to the Web.com Tour.
“If I would have already had my [PGA Tour] card locked up, I probably would have used driver,” he said.
But he didn’t. At that point, he was 167th on the money list. The top 125 earn cards for the 2013 PGA Tour. The next 25 get a handful of invitations to lesser tournaments. Everyone else stays up at night thinking about the ball they hit into the water hazard on 18.
“There’s a lot of things I could have done,” said Kokrak, 27, a Warren JFK High graduate. “But I knew if I played it safe, and made my putt, I’d solidify my card. I wouldn’t have to go into the next two fall series events needing to make $100,000 a week.”
So, he laid up. And after nearly holing a 48-foot birdie putt, he made his par, finished tied for second and cashed a $440,000 check that landed him 50 spots higher on the money list.
“It changed my career,” he said.
Here is Kokrak’s first year on tour in 25 words or less: He played 27 events. He made 13 cuts. He finished in the top 10 twice. He earned $750,221. He survived to play another year.
Here is Kokrak’s opinion of this year: “It was not a bad season but I know that’s about as bad as I can play on the tour. I don’t think I can play any worse.”
Here is Jon Diana’s opinion of that opinion: “Jason will probably tell you he couldn’t do any worse. When he and I talked in the spring, his goal was to win. But the realistic goal was to keep his card. All of his sponsorships and appearance fees and everything else were dependent on him keeping his card. Fortunately, he was able to do that.”
Diana, the club pro at Trumbull Country Club, caddied for Kokrak in the spring when he started missing putts — and cuts. He analyzes Kokrak’s game like a former coach, zeroing in on his poor wedge/short iron play. Kokrak ranks 178th on the tour from 75-100 yards.
“The guys on tour are so deadly at that distance,” he said. “He’s excellent on his length, but from 70-80-90 yards, he’s not getting it done.”
Statistically, Kokrak played like a rookie this year. He ranked 14th in driving distance (304.1) and 176th in driving accuracy (176th). He’s good at getting on the green (76th in greens in regulation) but bad at getting off it (129th in total putting).
But statistics don’t tell the whole story. Your first year on tour is about learning the courses, obviously, but it’s also about dealing with endless travel, increased demands (interviews, autographs, etc.) and staying confident when your game goes south and you realize there are 150 other players capable of beating your brains out every week.
“I don’t think people know how much of a mental and physical grind it is,” said Mill Creek Golf Director Dennis Miller, who qualified for the U.S. Open in June. “Every day, every week, the amount of hours you spend practicing, the weeks upon weeks of travel away from home — that’s a grind.
“When I played in the U.S. Open, by the time Thursday [the first round] came around, I was exhausted. And I only played one event. The demands on your time are incredible.”
At this point, Kokrak knows what you’re feeling and it probably isn’t pity for the poor guy who has to golf all day. While you spent your week building cars, balancing books or teaching snot-nosed seventh-graders — all for significantly less than the $750,000 he made this year — he’s spending his week in California at the Callaway Pebble Beach Invitational.
It’s a pro-am, not an official tour event, and while he won’t make a lot of money, the tournament bigwigs did pick up the tab for his flight, his hotel, his food and other expenses.
“I have a great job,” he said. “But people only look at your playing on TV and driving nice cars and getting free stuff. But it’s a lot more work than you think. You don’t really have a day off.”
Kokrak will soon get a few weeks off to visit his family (his dad lives in Warren, his mom lives in Charlotte and his brother lives in Chicago) but, next year, the PGA Tour is changing its setup. The 2013 season will be the last completed in a calendar year. The 2014 season will actually start with the 2013 fall series, meaning Kokrak will no longer get an offseason.
“It’ll be a change, but that’s the sacrifice I have to make,” he said.
If this year was about surviving, next year will be about thriving. With Kokrak’s length off the tee and improved putting, there’s no reason he can’t win a tournament or two, Miller said.
“The biggest part is, he’s confident and he knows he can do it,” said Miller. “He’s not afraid to play good golf.
“I anticipate him winning not once, but multiple times out there.”
“He shows moments of brilliance,” said Diana. “He’s very good at what he does but to win at that level, you have to be good at everything. And that’s hard to do. That’s why there are multiple winners.
“I think he’ll have a long career. He’s only 27 years old. He’s had no real injuries of any kind. It’s just a matter of staying healthy, getting some luck and playing well.”