By Dan Reardon
Golf is not physically painful, but it can be painfully cruel. Its dark side was on display at both ends of a career last weekend at the RBC Canadian Open. Evidence the closing holes at Glen Abbey last Sunday.
Steve Wheatcroft has been chasing the PGA Tour for the better part of two decades, and with three holes to play last week, he held his dream in his hands. He was tied for the lead with Jhonattan Vegas with a couple of par fives left to finally cross the finish line a winner. Instead he could do no better than par at 16, bogey at 17 and then the ultimate cruelty on 18, a bladed sand wedge into the water from a shallow bunker lie, and bogey. Up and down would have at least put him in a playoff. His red watery eyes summed up an entire adult life of aspirations wiped away with one swing.
On Saturday, at the same event, Kelly Kraft, a young version of Steve Wheatcroft, sampled that same sweet success only to return to reality in a short stretch of holes. Kraft is in his first full year on the PGA Tour after three in the Web.com minors. In 16 previous starts, he had only crashed the top 25 once and had missed seven cuts. But that day in Canada, Kraft was living up to the promise of a former U.S. Amateur champion.
With three front-nine birdies, he was 9-under for the championship, and getting face time on CBS as part of the lead pack. The announcers readied their notes for his back-nine run. But those notes quickly went back into the files as he carded two bogeys and two doubles to have nines of 32-43-75. That left him with a Sunday spent trying to boost the check not lift the trophy. Kraft finished with a roller-coaster four birdies, an eagle and five bogeys, ending the week T26 at -5.
Too young to have the career peaks and valleys of years in the professional ranks, Kraft has, to date, advanced his standing. Lightly recruited out of high school in Texas, he was a good (not great) player at SMU. When he found something special on the greens at Erin Hills in 2011 at the Amateur, he was regarded an upset winner over Patrick Cantlay, then the top-ranked amateur in the world.
Kraft remained amateur through his Masters exemption the following year, and tried unsuccessfully to play his way onto the PGA Tour. He managed to earn a spot on Web.com in 2013 with a modicum of success. After stumbling the following year, he found his stride in 2015, topped off by a win in Louisiana in late March. A season top 10 put him on the PGA Tour for the 2016 season; that 2015 was more a case of restoring rather than refining.
“You come out here, there’s a lot of people around, and everybody has got their swing coaches and their TrackMans and blah, blah, blah. You feel like you probably need to do that, even though that’s not what you’re used to,” he said at the Nelson in 2015.
“I got kind of trapped up in that, and I thought I had I had to change some stuff to get better, to get to this level even though I did win the U.S. Amateur and had a lot of success for that. Probably all I needed to do was keep going on the way I was going and I would be fine. Now I feel like I’m back to that point and playing better golf.”
Out of the box for the 2016 season, he missed four cuts in his first six events and added three more by June. Now with only three more chances before the FedEx series closes the door to those outside the top 125, he will need to reprise his Canadian showing more than once to guarantee a 2017 PGA Tour season.
Two more inches of sand is all that separated Steve Wheatcroft from perhaps taking the title from Vegas in Canada, culminating a 17-year journey of scars from coming up short. For players like Kelly Kraft, time is on their side, but opportunities lost, like at RBC, can turn into those scars which then show up the next time the door is open.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.