Random Rookie Thoughts, Sony Open Pre-Tourney Edition
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Kokrak: the next Dustin Johnson and/or Gary Woodland, et al.

To go from covering a 27-player limited field event in Kapalua to a 144-player full field event in Honolulu is similar to going from tending the bar at Fisher’s Island Golf Club to a club in Times Square on NYE — it’s a rather stark contrast. When I walked over to the practice area at Waialae Country Club on Wednesday, I felt like I’d just walked into a busy street in Manhattan after my quiet vacation in the country. Which isn’t a bad thing (though perhaps a little overwhelming at first). It was nice to be greeted by familiar faces and catch up with those I hadn’t seen since the playoffs and Fall Series.

What’s more, it was comforting to have an idea of where I was going and what to expect (to some extent), unlike the wide-eyed, nervous yet excited rookies getting in their last practice sessions before teeing it up in the first event of the year (or, for some, their career). As Bud Cauley noted during his presser, “It’s like being a freshman all over again.” I definitely can relate to that feeling, which, for me, means…welcome to the sophomore slump! Woot! (Also very interesting to look back at stories I wrote around this time last year — oh, how things can change in a short 12 months and it’s been interesting to watch some guys evolve, or go the other way…)

Ryo, not a rookie, but whatever, he's a rock star

(To see Ryo in his bright yellow pants from a different angle — which I didn’t notice until a bunch of dudes on Twitter pointed it out to me, ha! — see here. Later in the day, he made a wardrobe change before sitting down for a TV interview.

I spent the majority of Wednesday catching up with club reps, players, caddies, etc. — you know, those who I saw on a regular basis last year (but still meeting so many new people) — and tracking down aka stalking rookies. Even though 24 of the 26 guys in the class of 2012 are playing this week, it was tough to pick some of them out. I mean, you know how a bunch of guys wearing polo shirts, khakis and hats all kind of blend together? Yep. Factor in that it’s a pro-am day, too. But I managed to find a handful or so. (And I have more than enough used and unused material to look back on from the ones I spoke to at Q-school.)

Let’s start getting acquainted with these fresh faces and their first impressions at the Sony…

Danny Lee, 21, 2011 NWT $ Finish No. 6:

*While he’s technically a rookie, he certainly has more experience than the rest of the class. He became the youngest U.S. Amateur champ when he won in 2008 at age 18 years and one month (which was broken the following year by 17-year-old Byeong-hun An). As an amateur in February 2009 he won the Johnnie Walker Classic, a tournament co-sanctioned by the European, Asian, and Australasian tours, making him the youngest winner on the European Tour (until Matteo Manassero captured the 2010 Castello Masters).

*He turned pro in April 2009 and made a bid for his PGA Tour card via sponsor’s exemptions that season. In 13 starts he made six cuts, with two top-25 finishes, including a T7 at the Byron Nelson. Then he hit a few roadblocks and didn’t make it past the first stage of Q-school and turned his focus to the European Tour, but fell into a slump in 2010. He got his groove back in 2011 and captured the WNB Classic on the NWT on his way to finishing No. 6 on the money list to earn his PGA Tour card. His English has also improved a lot since 2009 (apparently he didn’t speak a word, but he spoke just fine when I talked to him on Wednesday).

*K.J. Choi has taken him under his wing and introduced him to instructor Steve Bann, whom he started working with on Tuesday.

*Most important thing he’s learned playing professional golf the last three years? “Don’t panic.”

*”When I first played on the PGA Tour in ’09, I was actually very nervous every week.  I was actually in panic mode for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.  But I think I don’t feel as rookie as much this year.  I feel more comfortable, and I think I know what I have to do and what I should be doing.  So it’s much easier for me this year.”

*”I know this is different Tour, but I think golf game is playing the same, so I think I know what I have to do to win.  You know, I’ll just play really hard and try really hard and just try to defend my card for next year.  That’s my goal at the moment.”

*”My goal is win one event…I believe I can play more than 20 events this year, so I’ve got a lot of chances this year.  That’s one of my main goals.  Hopefully that happens.  I will just keep doing what I’m doing right now and work hard.”

Jason Kokrak, 26, 2011 NWT $ List No. 4:

*Known to hit the ball a mile. He’s supposed to be the next Dustin Johnson or Gary Woodland. Grew up in Ohio and played college golf at Xavier University. He won the Championship at St. James Plantation and the Donald Ross Championship on eGolf Tour last season. Though he only played in three events, he finished second on the eGolf Tour money list. In September 2011 he won his first NWT event, the Albertson’s Boise Open, and then the following month, he captured the Miccosukee Championship. He now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. Reminds me kind of like a “Big Friendly Giant.” He held back some guys, who had one too many alcoholic beverages, from coming to fists the night before rookie orientation in Palm Desert last month.)

*”I played only 16 events (on the NWT), and I didn’t play well in the first like three or four that I played in…Then I put the pedal to the metal and started playing pretty good.”

*”Getting into a comfort level playing professional golf — it was a little bit of a transition for me.  But I said, preached a lot about comfort level out there last year, and that’s what gave me the opportunity and what I needed to do to play well out there was the comfort level on the golf course and with my peers out there. Before that it was a little bit tough for me, transitioning from college golf into professional golf, but now it’s all setting in, and we’ve got to go with the flow right now.”

*”I’m a big guy, so I don’t think too many guys are going to pick on me.  But they’re trying to teach me the ropes here and there.  Just kind of needling me a little bit, but no hazing or anything like that.  They start hazing me I’ll come back right…I’m not afraid to hold my own.”

Miguel Angel Carballo, 32, NWT $ List No. 10:

*Making his first PGA Tour start of his career at the Sony this week. Lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Doesn’t have a home base set up in the U.S. yet. Will travel back-and-forth as needed (15-hour flight!) the first few months until he settles in and then will figure out the living situation. Friends with Jhonattan Vegas, a fellow South American native.

*” I’m pretty calm now because I’ve been on the Nationwide for five years, so I know about a lot of players here.  I’m excited because it’s the PGA Tour, but other than that, I’m pretty calm…it feels different (compared to the NWT), like the setup of the tournament, like the big tents, the big crowds, everything.  Everything is much bigger.  The service is very good, also, the service to players is very good, also.”

*Words of wisdom from Vegas on succeeding at Waialae: “He said just go in the middle of the fairway and you’re not going to have any problems.”

*Advice from Vegas on succeeding in the bigs: “Try to rest a lot because the year is way long, we play a lot of tournaments.  So the most you rest, the better you’re going to be.”

Erik Compton, 32, NWT $ List No. 13:

*Two-time heart transplant recipient. Amazing, inspiring story that doesn’t get any less so even if you’ve heard it a dozen times. It’s pretty incredible that he’s alive, let alone playing professional golf. Doesn’t really seem like a “rookie” because he’s been around over the years and played a fair number of events via sponsor’s invites and Monday Qualifiers.

*”I want to be out here to win at this level, and I don’t think my story is quite done yet.  I think sometimes Hollywood wants an ending and something that’s going to sell is never good enough.  You have to win a PGA event and then you have to win a major and then you have to win a Grand Slam, and then you’ve got to be the President of the United States.  So it’s like, at what point does the story — it’s just a tough story to write, because it’s still in the process.”

*”I’ve had a bunch of (scary moments).  You know, it’s kind of funny when you say scary, because scary and exciting at the same time; the birth of our daughter was kind of scary and exciting at the same time.  I think having a heart attack and driving myself to the hospital and knowing that that was pretty much the end, that was pretty scary and sad at the same time, because life’s not like the movies where you tell everybody goodbye. So that was pretty scary.  I think I’ve had some scary moments, even when I was a kid waiting for the helicopter to land and then they are going to open me up, that was scary…it’s kind of an adrenaline rush, the second time, I was pretty excited because I came to grips that it was my only option, so that was exciting.”

*”It’s just an adjustment with the medicine, it’s always kind of changing.  I take a handful in the morning and a handful at night I’ve been doing that for 23 years.  So could be anywhere from five to ten in the morning, and you know, maybe two or three in the afternoon and then in the evening about the same.”

*”I’ve had some setbacks over the holidays, but just kind of deal, you know what I mean.  I started the season at  or ended the season at 163 and I got down to 145 at one point over the holidays and now I’m probably back to 155.  I’m like an accordion.  I honestly don’t want to get into every detail because then when I hear myself, I sound like somebody who always has issues and I hate that.  It’s like  to your question before, sometimes I’ll see something on the TV and I’m like, you know, I’m sure guys are getting tired of hearing this. So there is some point, yeah, I want my clubs to do the talking and be able to play and talk about and win.  But even if I did win, you guys know — you would probably ask me how I was feeling or how the heart was feeling.”

Richard H. Lee, 24, Q School Finish T24:

*Grew up in the same hometown as me (Bellevue, WA), and works with same swing coach (Joe Thiel) — woot! (Well, not that I really “work” on my swing these days…) Has a pretty cool story. Quit high school and moved to Asia to try to make it to the pros. Moved back to the States, got his GED and attended Bellevue Community College, where he played on the golf team for two years before transferring to join the Huskies at the University of Washington. Married with a four-year-old daughter, who are both with him in Hawaii this week.

*Amazing finish at Q-school last month — he went eagle, birdie, par, birdie, birdie to earn his card with one shot to spare. He’s making his first PGA Tour start at Sony this week.

*”(Q-school finish) was special, something I won’t forget for the rest of my life…especially the way I finished last year at Q-school I missed out on my card by one, and I kind of went the opposite way, bogeyed two of my last four holes to miss it by one.  And this year, I don’t know, I just never gave up, just kept grinding.  I think I was able to kind of learn that from obviously last year’s Q-school and also kind of what I’ve learned throughout the season on the Nationwide.  I was able to kind of apply.  I learned you never know when you’re going to get in the zone.  I told myself to just keep grinding, and it came at the right time.”

*”I don’t think I’m nervous.  I’m more just excited.  I think that’s going to be a key for me to control myself from getting too excited…it’s hit me that I’m playing on the PGA Tour now, but I’m sure once I get to the first tee and they call my name, I’ll be like, wow, I’m really playing in a Tour event.  I think that will be the biggest challenge for me is just kind of keep myself calm rather than being nervous, just more of the excitement.

*”Well, I had good advice from Kevin Streelman.  He’s not here this week, but he’s from Scottsdale (where he lives now).  He’s been kind of mentoring me a little bit, and he basically told me, hey, it is the PGA Tour and it is the big time, but at the same time it’s just golf.  You just go out there and just play golf, and I think that’s what I’ve got to come down to, try to get all the distractions out of the way because there is a lot more distractions out here compared to Nationwide, and obviously just got to play golf, and that’s what I’m here for.  He just told me PGA TOUR, Nationwide Tour, mini Tour, you’re playing golf.  So I think that was good advice, just to go out there…”

*I asked him if he had come across any childhood heroes or favorite players yet and he couldn’t really think of a specific example. Twenty minutes later, K.J. Choi walked through the practice putting green en route to the range. I happened to be standing nearby when Richard stopped him and introduced himself to K.J. The two exchanged some words in Korean. He was super excited about finally meeting K..J. and even more stoked K.J. knew his name. So that was pretty much his big “Wow, I’m on the PGA Tour!” moment (so far) of the week.


Other rookies to watch this week? Seung-yul Noh, Sang-moon Bae, Harris English, Bud Cauley, J.J. Killeen and Gary Christian, who is making his first PGA Tour start at age 40. Good luck, kids, and welcome to the bigs!

(AP Photo/Kent Nishimura)