HUMBLE, Texas – The term journeyman gets thrown around a lot in golf parlance. It can be applied to players of varying ability, sometimes attached simply to those without name-brand recognition.
For Jim Herman, though, it’s an appropriate tag. At 38 years old, his journey has been a meandering one, filled with far more valleys than peaks.
But after a self-described whirlwind final round at the Shell Houston Open, Herman’s journey has now taken him to the rarified air of PGA Tour champion. It also will include an extra destination: Augusta National.
Starting the day with a share of the lead, Herman held off a packed leaderboard that included Henrik Stenson and Dustin Johnson for a one-shot victory. It was a performance that elicited tears of joy from Herman shortly after sinking the winning putt, a stroke that earned him the final spot in the Masters.
“This is crazy,” Herman said. “I’ve dreamt of this for so long, and now it’s here. So I’m going to enjoy it.”
Crazy, indeed, for a guy who once was content with the prospect of forging a career as a club pro. Herman struggled to get his playing career off the ground in the early 2000s, trying his hand at various Florida mini-tours just to pay the bills. It took him seven cracks to simply get past the second stage of PGA Tour Q-School – a barrier he finally cleared at TPC Woodlands, a short drive from the Golf Club of Houston.
“I think Houston has been pretty good to me,” he joked.
In between those failed attempts, though, he worked for years as a club pro, first in south Florida and then at Trump National Bedminster in New Jersey.
“I love this game of golf,” Herman said. “I always knew I had the talent to get out here, but when you don’t get out here, what else are you going to do? No one is going to let you come out here.”
Herman finally made it to the PGA Tour in 2011, but he spent the next few years bouncing back and forth between the big leagues and the developmental Web.com Tour. The tears he shed in victory flowed for a far different reason two years ago, when Herman said he reached a low point after losing his card and returning to the Web.com Tour Finals.
For Herman, the battle has been uphill seemingly from the start, and it made his final-round performance all the more remarkable. He had never even sniffed the lead on the PGA Tour before, and he had only five top-10 finishes in 105 starts entering the week.
He had strung together three good rounds, but the crucible of the final round would surely be his undoing. Faced with the pressures of leading for the first time, he was expected to fold and make way for one of the stars behind him to rise up and take the trophy.
And the rallies from the chase pack did come, as expected: first from Jordan Spieth, then Rickie Fowler, then Johnson and finally Stenson. But through it all, Herman remained calm and committed to a game plan that he and caddie Matt Achatz had crafted.
“We wanted to hit shots that he could 100 percent commit to, and that he was comfortable, and he could see it with his eye,” Achatz said. “We didn’t want to force him to hit anything that his brain couldn’t see.”
Herman’s recent results didn’t indicate that a winning performance might be on the horizon, but he said that he saw his short game turning around last month at Bay Hill. He had been putting in some extra work with short-game coach Bill Davis, a man whom he credited for turning his game around over the last two years.
It was Davis’ advice that Herman had echoing in his ears on the par-3 16th hole just before authoring the tournament’s defining shot.
Clinging to a share of the lead, he let a “wheelhouse 6-iron” drift left into the rough on the upslope of a bunker. Rather than get it up-and-down, Herman holed the pitch to grab a one-shot lead that he would not relinquish.
“That’s the deciding shot,” he said. “That’s just like Bill said, ‘You’re going to have a chip shot to win your tournament or a pitch shot or a putt, and you’re going to keep your head down and execute.’”
With one hole standing between Herman and a career-defining victory, he faced an obstacle that has taken out numerous players before: a wait on the 72nd tee.
Herman had to wait six minutes for the group ahead of him to clear the fairway, left with nothing but time to ponder what was at stake. He paced, he checked the leaderboard, and he paced some more.
When the wait was over, though, he uncorked the drive of his life – a 316-yard missile that split the fairway and set up an easy par.
“It’s easy to let your mind wander,” Herman admitted. “But we’ve been through a lot, and it’s great to be able to execute when you need to.”
“I tried to make it fun,” Achatz said. “When you have a one-shot lead, I don’t care what hole it is, I don’t care what’s in front of you, you should be having the best time of your life because you have an opportunity to win on the PGA Tour. We didn’t look at anything that could happen. It was just, ‘Enjoy the moment.’”
Only minutes after closing out the win, Herman began to take stock of everything his victory had earned him. The Masters, he said, was never something he saw as a realistic goal.
But now he’s not only hopping the next flight to Augusta National, he’s also playing the PGA Championship in July, booking a room for Kapalua in January, and assured of a card through the 2017-18 season.
Herman withstood the biggest pressure he has ever faced in a tournament, and he’ll now be taking the trophy home. Not bad for a journeyman.
“I was not given the tournament, I know that. I played really well, 9 under on the weekend, 4 under today,” he said. “Pretty proud of myself to, you know, get up there, first time I was in the final group, and bring it home.”