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,"
"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
Former PGA pro Steve Gotsche of Great Bend, Kan., who knows Klein
well enough to call him "Grumpy," won't rule that out
"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
"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
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
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
"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."
This years news archive | Email
this page to a friend | Return to top of page