By Joe Scalzo
Battling the heat and a cold, Jason Kokrak sweated through one of those rounds on Thursday that left his scorecard looking like Las Vegas’ mountainous skyline.
Eight birdies and seven bogeys left him with a first-round 70 at the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open at TPC Summerlin. He’s tied for 71st, nine strokes behind the leader.
“I’m making the birdies now,” said Kokrak, speaking by phone after his round. “I just have to start eliminating the bogeys.”
Playing in 100-degree temperatures, Kokrak is feeling the heat of trying to remain on the PGA Tour after a first season that’s seen him make nearly $300,000 but miss 13 of 23 cuts.
He ranks 178th on the money list with $277,330 and faces an uphill climb to finish in the top 125 and earn a guaranteed tour card for next season. (Kevin Chappell is currently 125th with $610,948.)
Players ranked 126-150 receive a conditional tour card — Scott Brown is 150th with $412,349 — and Kokrak knows he’ll need to play the best golf of his career to jump that many spots.
“I’m going to have to do something special to be in the top 125,” the Warren JFK High graduate said. “Getting in the top 150 would be ideal because that gets you an automatic 10 starts and conditional status.
“But it’s tough. It’s not an easy job out here.”
If Kokrak finishes outside the top 150, he’ll return to the Web.com Tour (formerly the Nationwide Tour), which is where he played the 2011 season, winning twice.
“That’s not that bad,” he said.
Kokrak’s last two events were on the Web.com Tour, missing the cut at the Albertsons Boise Open on Sept. 16 after winning the event last year. Last week he finished tied for 23rd at the Chiquita Classic in Charlotte, N.C.
While there, Kokrak gave NASCAR legend Richard Petty a putting lesson, then fired an opening round 6-under 66 to share the first-round lead. He finished with a 10-under 278.
“I’ve been hitting the ball a lot better and scoring a little bit better as of recently,” he said. “And I’ve been putting pretty good, even if it didn’t show today.
“If I eliminate the bogeys [from Thursday’s round], I’m in second place right now.”
Kokrak plans to play the PGA Tour’s fall series, so he’ll be at the Frys.com Open in California next week, followed by the McGladrey Classic from Oct. 18-21 before finishing at the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic Nov. 8-11.
“I’ve definitely gotten better this year, even if it hasn’t always shown in my play,” he said. “The next few weeks are going to be tough, probably the hardest stretch of golf in my life.”