Cook relives the past, happy with the present

By John FeinsteinNovember 21, 2012, 5:13 pm

Jeff Cook is 50 now and life couldn’t be much better. He and his wife, Pam, are in the process of building a house in Indianapolis and he is about to start his 16th year working as an equipment representative for Mizuno. That means he spends time on the PGA Tour almost every week, seeing old friends, spending time on the range trading jokes and old stories or arguing about his beloved Indiana Hoosiers with anyone who cares to take him on.

“Most of the time I’m perfectly happy to be on this side of things,” he said on a recent morning. “I like doing what I do and I enjoy myself out there working with the guys I work with. But there are times when I feel the twinges, when I miss the competition. That was the most fun about playing golf – the competition.”

Cook competed on the PGA Tour for one year, in 1993. Before and after he was a regular at PGA Tour Q-School finals. He played in the finals for six consecutive years and then twice more – the last time in 1999 – when he was already working for Mizuno. That may be why he’s perfectly happy that his late-season schedule this year didn’t call for him to be in California for the final finals.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re playing or not playing, the feel of Q-School is entirely different than any other tournament,” he said. “No one wants to stand around on the range and tell stories. There’s too much tension. I usually just wish guys luck and, if it’s one of our (Mizuno) guys I tell them I’m here if they need me for anything. I remember when I was playing at Q-School, it just wasn’t a week for socializing – even with my friends.”

Like every player who has ever teed it up at Q-School, Cook has a couple of indelible memories – one good and one bad.

“In ’92, the finals were at The Woodlands (outside Houston). It was cold and damp the whole week and at times it was tough to grip the club and really take a swing at the ball because you knew the contact was going to hurt.

“The last day, I came to 18 and I thought I was right on the number. That was what my gut told me. No one wants to play that hole under pressure – it’s long and the second shot’s over water and if you’re shaking with nerves, it’s brutal. I think I had 3-iron to the green and I hit it perfectly. Give me 50 tries and I won’t hit the ball better. I took my two-putt par and ran off the green.

“Making it through to make the Tour was thrilling, but doing it by hitting a shot that good under pressure made it even better.”

A year later, like a lot of Tour rookies, Cook was back – first playing second stage. “Second stage that year may have been as good as my game has ever been,” he remembered. “I mean I was on. I think I won by six shots (at Fort Ord) and I was ready to go play finals the next day.

“Problem was, they weren’t the next day; they were two weeks later. By the time I got there (at PGA West) I just wasn’t as sharp. I honestly don’t think I ever had my best game going during a finals – even the year I made it. That was frustrating but you can’t control that sort of thing.”

Even though he didn’t feel great about his game that week 19 years ago, Cook again went into the final day right around the number to make the PGA Tour. He was convinced he was smack on the number when he got to the 17th hole, which was a par-3 with water on three sides.

When Cook and his group arrived on the tee there were two groups ahead of them and a third walking towards the green. “That’s the toughest thing about Q-school, the pace of play,” he said. “The days are short because it’s December and the rounds are long. You feel like you’re playing almost from sunup to sundown.”

Cook took one look at all the players on the tee and went for a walk. “In that situation you don’t want to watch other guys,” he said. “It’s just too tough. If you see someone melt down it can affect you.”

Actually one player waiting on the tee did melt down, but not with a club in his hands. Steve LaMontagne, who, like Cook had been on Tour and was on the bubble trying to get back, lost it.

“What a hole to have to sit and wait on,” LaMontagne said, his voice loud enough that it could be heard up on the green. “I mean, can you believe this, can you (expletive) believe we have to sit and wait on THIS hole!”

When someone on the green turned and yelled, ‘Hey!’ LaMontagne lowered his voice but kept railing while he paced in a circle.

Cook was sitting under a tree at that point, trying not to hear or see anything. When it was finally his turn, he hit a perfect-looking 6-iron that flew right over the flag and stopped 20 feet above the hole. It was right on top of a plateau, meaning if it sucked back just a little it might roll all the way down to the flag. It never moved. Cook was left with a 20-footer, straight downhill. He tapped it and watched it go 4 feet past the hole. His par putt did an absolute 360 around the hole – and stayed out.

“It was like getting kicked in the stomach,” Cook said. “But at that moment I had to think, ‘OK, let’s birdie 18.’”

He almost did. He hit two very good shots to another hole with water fronting it and had a 20-footer for birdie. He missed it by about 2 inches. That was the difference between getting his card back and not getting his card back.

“I remember going and standing by the board, watching the scores go up,” he said. “I was totally deflated after all the adrenaline I’d had going. I knew someone had to really screw up coming in from the last groups for the number to move. No one ever says it, but that’s what you’re standing there hoping for.”

It didn’t happen. Cook missed by one. He played on what is now the Tour for the next six years – getting back to finals on several occasions but never coming that close to the PGA Tour again. In 1997, while he was still playing, Rick Nelson, the Mizuno rep on the PGA Tour, quit halfway through the year. Cook had been playing Mizuno irons since college and had become an unofficial go-between the company and players looking to play Mizuno on what was then the Nike Tour.

Harry Taylor, who had been Nelson’s boss, called and asked if Cook would fill in as the company’s rep on the tour for the rest of the year.

“At first I said no, I was still playing,” Cook said. “But he said I could go in on Mondays, leave on Wednesday and they’d fly me to wherever I was playing. I tried it and liked it and actually played pretty well. By ’99, though, I was getting worn out. I had to make a decision.”

He played Q-School one more time, made finals but not the PGA Tour and decided, at the age of 37, it was time to move on. Thirteen years later, he’s married and has twin teenagers from Pam’s first marriage. And couldn’t be happier.

“I turned 50 this year and a lot of people said, ‘Are you going to try the Champions Tour?’” he said. “I thought about it, but then I realized I’d have to give up my job and the life I’ve built to try to do it. I do think back to that day in ’93 on occasion but not often.” He laughed. “One thing about Q-School, it’s not that often things happen that you try to remember. But you do remember, whether you want to or not.”

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Kerr blows big lead, heads into Kia Sunday one back

By Associated PressMarch 25, 2018, 1:55 am

CARLSBAD, Calif. - Cristie Kerr blew a five-stroke lead Saturday in the Kia Classic to set up a final-round showdown at Aviara Golf Club.

A day after shooting an 8-under 64 to open the big lead, Kerr had a 75 to drop a stroke behind playing partner Lizette Salas, Eun-Hee Ji and In-Kyung Kim. Kerr was tied with Caroline Hedwall, Wei-Ling Hsu and Cindy LaCrosse, and four players were another shot back.

The 40-year-old Kerr had a double bogey on the par-4 15th after snap-hooking a drive into the trees. The 2015 winner at Aviara, she also had two bogeys and two birdies.

Ji had a 67 to match Salas (69) and Kim (69) at 11-under 205. Salas had a chance to pull away, but missed birdie putts of 1 1/2 feet on the short par-4 16th and 2 1/2 feet on the par-5 17th.

Anna Nordqvist had a 66 to top the group at 9 under.

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Match Play Final Four set to bring the excitement

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 11:55 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Sunday’s Final Four at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play will include a pair of Georgia Bulldogs, a two-and-done phenom from Alabama and a Swede from Stockholm via Stillwater, that would be Oklahoma.

Just like that other tournament, right?

Actually, for all the volatility in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, it’s not even in the same league as this year’s Match Play, where just a single player who began the week seeded inside the top 10 is still playing.

But what the event may lack in star power it’s certainly made up for with stellar performances, starting with Justin Thomas who is the PGA Tour’s most avid Alabama fan and the tournament’s second-seeded player.

After not losing a match in three days of pool play, Thomas again cruised through his morning Round-of-16 bout with Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5; but found himself in an unfamiliar position early in his quarterfinal match against Kyle Stanley.

Having not trailed during any point in his matches this week, Thomas bogeyed the second hole to fall behind.

“I was hoping to never trail this whole week. I thought that was unbelievable that [2017 champion Dustin Johnson] did it last year,” Thomas said. “I'm going out there this afternoon, and I was like, ‘Man, I have got a chance of doing this, too.’ Then I missed a 3-footer on 2 and shot that out the window.”

The world’s second-ranked player was nearly perfect the rest of the way, regaining the lead with three birdies in four holes starting at No. 5 and closing Stanley out with a bogey-free finish.

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It’s all part of an impressive turnaround for Thomas, who had been slowed in recent weeks by dental surgery followed by a bout with the flu, which nearly prompted him to miss the Match Play.

“I had a pretty serious conversation with my dad on Monday if I was going to play,” said Thomas, who can unseat Johnson atop the Official World Golf Ranking if he advances to the championship match. “I never want to play in a tournament, first off if it's going to hurt my health. If I was sick or really sick, me trying to play this week wasn't going to do me any good.”

His improved health has dovetailed with his increasingly better play at Austin Country Club and he’s now two matches away from winning his first World Golf Championship.

Like the NCAA tournament, however, being one of the last four standing only means more work, and Thomas will have plenty to keep him busy when he sets out early Sunday in a semifinal match against Bubba Watson.

Although Watson hasn’t been as dominant as Thomas, his ability to overpower any course, any time, has been evident this week following victories over Brian Harman, 2 and 1, and Kiradech Aphibarnrat, 5 and 3, on his way to the Final Four.

“When you're hitting an 8-iron and another guy is hitting a 7- or another guy is hitting a 6-iron, obviously that's going to change everything,” said Watson, who played his college golf at Georgia. “It's like LeBron James, when he jumps, he jumps higher than I do, so it's an advantage. When you're hitting the driver good and those guys you're naming, they're known for hitting the driver pretty well, just like Thomas is doing right now, he's been hammering it. Anytime that you're hitting the driver somewhat straight, it's an advantage.”

But if Bubba is a familiar foe for Thomas, he may want to do a quick Google search to fill in the blanks on one of his potential final opponents.

While Alex Noren is still a relatively unknown player to many American fans (and that’s certain to change in September at the Ryder Cup), it’s only because they haven’t been paying attention. The Swede, who attended Oklahoma State, has been dominant this week, sweeping the group stage followed by a 5-and-3 victory over Patrick Reed in the Sweet 16 and a 4-and-2 triumph over Cameron Smith in the quarterfinals.

“I've always liked match play because the outcome is quite direct,” said Noren, who will face Kevin Kisner in the semifinals. “In match play, you've just got to be really focused all the time and anything can happen. And then you have to play good each round. You can't just give up a round and then think you've got three more.”

But if a JT vs. Noren final would be the perfect Ryder Cup primer, the dream match up for Thomas in the championship tilt might be Kisner.

Kisner lost a friendly wager to Thomas earlier this year at the Sony Open when Alabama defeated Georgia in the NCAA National Championship football game and he had to wear an Alabama jersey while he played the 17th hole on Thursday.

Kisner would certainly appreciate the chance at a mulligan. And the way the duo have been rolling in birdie putts this week, it has the potential to be just as entertaining as that other tournament.

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Up one, Stricker hunting second Champions title

By Associated PressMarch 24, 2018, 11:48 pm

BILOXI, Miss. - Steve Stricker moved into position for his second straight PGA Tour Champions victory, shooting a 3-under 69 on Saturday to take a one-stroke lead in the Rapiscan Systems Classic.

Stricker won the Cologuard Classic three weeks ago in Tucson, Arizona, for his first victory on the 50-and-over tour. He tied for 12th the following week in the PGA Tour's Valspar Championship.

Full-field scores from the Rapiscan Systems Classic

Stricker had a 7-under 137 total at Fallen Oak, the Tom Fazio-designed layout with big, speedy greens.

The 51-year-old Wisconsin player bogeyed Nos. 2-3, rebounded with birdies on Nos. 6-7, birdied the par-4 12th and eagled the par-5 13th. He has six top-three finishes in eight career senior starts.

First-round leader Joe Durant followed his opening 66 with a 72 to drop into a tie for second with Jeff Sluman (67).

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Thomas can take world No. 1 with win over Watson

By Rex HoggardMarch 24, 2018, 11:29 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – On March 7, Justin Thomas had his wisdom teeth removed, and just when he was recovering from that, he was slowed by a bout with the flu.

In total, he estimates he lost about seven pounds, and he admitted on Saturday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to play the event.

“I had a pretty serious conversation with my dad on Monday if I was going to play,” Thomas said. “I never want to play in a tournament, first off, if it's going to hurt my health. If I was sick or really sick, me trying to play this week wasn't going to do me any good.”

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Thomas went on to explain he was “50/50” whether he’d play the World Golf Championship, but decided to make the start and it’s turned out well for the world’s second-ranked player.

After going undefeated in pool play, Thomas cruised past Si Woo Kim, 6 and 5, in the round of 16 and secured himself a spot in the semifinals with a 2-and-1 victory over Kyle Stanley in the quarterfinals. If Thomas wins his semifinal match against Bubba Watson on Sunday, he’s assured enough points to overtake Dustin Johnson atop the Official World Golf Ranking.

“I don't care when it happens; I just hope it happens and it happens for a while,” Thomas said when asked about the possibility of becoming world No. 1. “I don't know what to say because I've never experienced it. I don't know what's going to come with it. But I just hope it happens tomorrow.”