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Jeff Klein a rookie at age 44

Jeff Klein is at an age where PGA Tour golfers let their minds wander toward their future on the Senior Tour.

He has been in almost every state, playing low-dollar tournaments for enough money to gas up the car, roll through the drive-through and pay for another night at a budget motel.

He is pretty fit for a 44-year-old guy. But as one of the oldest rookies ever to make the PGA Tour, he won't drive Chevy Z-28s anymore. Too hard on the back.

He has played against Tom Lehman, Mark Calcavecchia and John Daly before they went big-time, and his teacher knows Tiger Woods well enough to say more than hello.

He has never owned a house, never been married, never worked a job outside the game that drives him.

Golf and Jeff Klein are inseparable.

He'll get away from it briefly when it's goose season in his native Nebraska Panhandle or when the fish are biting somewhere. And he'll talk Nebraska football.

But it always returns to golf.

Credit -- or blame -- goes to his competitive nature. For years, the Mitchell, Neb., resident believed his game was ready for the PGA Tour. But he couldn't get there. Couldn't play well enough to get through the rigors of the Tour's qualifying tournament. Couldn't make enough money in any of the six years he was on the second-tier Buy.com Tour to qualify that way.

"I've always known I was good enough to make it, but it was a matter of playing well in the finals and I hadn't done that before," Klein said.

"Even this year I asked myself, 'Are you sure you want to do this all again?' I'm glad I did."

By tying for 21st in the PGA Tour's qualifying finals, Klein earned a spot on this year's tour. To stay there longer, he either must win a tournament or be among the top 125 money winners at season's end.

Former PGA pro Steve Gotsche of Great Bend, Kan., who knows Klein well enough to call him "Grumpy," won't rule that out either.

"Truthfully, Jeff's not the most talented and he's not the youngest, but anything's possible," Gotsche said. "It takes two or three good weeks, and you're set for the year. And Jeff is a grinder."

A grinder -- that's fairway talk for a golfer who doesn't give up on himself or his game.

Klein's teacher, Bryan Gathright, expects him to do well. Klein spent last week working with Gathright in San Antonio to sharpen his game for tournament play before heading back to Mitchell.

"These courses you play are more suited to your style," Gathright told Klein on the practice range after a lesson at a San Antonio country club. "I'm really excited."

"I hope you're right," Klein said. "It can't be a bad year playing the PGA Tour."

It could be a "Tin Cup" story in the making for "Grumpy." It's one of the two nicknames Klein has been given. The other: "Helmet," as in football helmet -- as in hardheaded. Klein doesn't like either one.

"He's pretty even-tempered," Gotsche said. "Like every golfer, he gets upset. But he's fun to travel with. He's set in his ways a bit because he's older."

To escape minor-league golf, Klein spent 13 years driving as many as 40,000 miles a year to tournaments. He went through cars -- eight is a good guess, he says -- and almost as many girlfriends.

"I had some pretty serious relationships before," he said. "I think a couple of them had come down to a 'golf-or-me' ultimatum, and golf had won both of those."

His current girlfriend, Charlotte, works at the Western Nebraska Veterans Home in Scottsbluff, Neb. She is a novice about golf, but "she's finding out in a hurry," Klein said.

"She knows I have to travel. Even Tour school, she wasn't really sure what that was. She knew it was a big tournament and she knew it was important for me to make it, but she found out afterward how important it really was."

An avid hunter and fisherman, Klein is at home in the Panhandle. He is three years younger than his brother, Mike, who tried the PGA Tour in the early 1980s. Their parents, Howard and Timmy, were good golfers at Scotts Bluff Country Club, and the Kleins spent most summer days on the course.

Jeff's father died three years ago. Jeff's mother still lives in Mitchell, where Jeff has spent the past few winters.

"It's a shame Dad wasn't around for this," Jeff said. "He wasn't a guy who talked a lot, but he had confidence in me. I think he knew I could do it."

Golf was Jeff's only sport at Mitchell High School. He grew four or five inches as a senior, reaching his current 6-foot height, but it came too late to play on a good Tiger basketball team.

He played golf at Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff and then at Nebraska. He lettered in 1979 and 1980 for then-Coach Larry Romjue, years that Klein said could have been better had he been committed to improving.

"When I started playing all year around and started practicing, I got a lot better in a hurry," Klein said. "I won the old Channel 10-11 tournament in Hastings the summer I got out of school, shooting some really good scores, and Coach asked, "Where was that the past three years?'"

Klein turned pro -- he missed the cut at the 1983 U.S. Open -- and moved to Houston as a club professional at several courses. In 1989, he became a member of the Professional Golfers Association of America.

He said he has made money almost every year, usually enough to survive, and in one or two years brought in more than $100,000. No two years were alike. It took about $30,000 a year to cover expenses, but last year cost more because he spent about $12,000 on the qualifying tournament.

He has had sponsors, sometimes from Houston and sometimes from the Scottsbluff area, but he is paying for this year alone.

"I never had a year where I just played terrible and just didn't make anything," he said. "I wouldn't be here if that happened. I might go through a couple months where I'd play bad, but I always seemed to win a tournament here and there and make enough money to make it worthwhile."

Klein was eligible six years for the PGA Tour's second tier of tournaments, now called the Nationwide Tour, but never finished among the money leaders. Almost every year, he would try qualifying for the following year's PGA Tour.

The result -- until now -- always was heartbreak.

"At one point, I was pretty sure my day would come," Klein said. "Part of me said I was running out of time, but deep down I knew I was good enough to do it. I had gotten more consistency and played good golf. I don't feel my game has fallen off at all."

In December, Klein was one of 38 professionals who made it to the PGA Tour through the Tour's annual three-stage, 14-round national qualifying tournament.

"I basically was on the bubble for all 14 (qualifying) rounds. It's not much fun, I'll tell you that," Klein said. "I never got comfortable where I could get five or six under the projected number and not worry about it.

"I wasn't as nervous the final day as I'd thought I'd be. It probably was the best round I played throughout the qualifying."

Since PGA Tour officials handed him his card last month -- an actual card that shows he is a Tour member -- some of what has happened remains a blur.

"It's kind of changed. I now realize what I did and now have a harder task ahead of me. I have to go out and try to keep my card," he said. "I'll still just be sitting there and just laugh once in a while."

His first tournament of the year could be this week's Sony Hawaiian Open. He originally thought he would get into the tournament easily, but he was bumped to first alternate when others with higher priority filed their entries.

He anticipates that he'll get into four tournaments in January and February. More opportunities to play will come during the spring and summer. A good guess is that he'll need to win $550,000 to be eligible for 2004.

While Klein is going to lead the life he has sought, giving up car keys for boarding passes, it comes at a small price: "I can't stop halfway to the next tournament and go fishing."

 

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