Jason Kokrak on whiskey, gardening, and the way he nearly give up {golfing}

Jason Kokrak has played repeatedly on the PGA Tour since 2012. But until about a year ago, even a serious golf fan couldn’t know who he was. Kokrak spent most of his career well outside the top 100 of the Official World Golf Ranking – good enough to certainly be one of the best players in the world, but far from the top tier in the sport. He had won the sport’s lower tours a few times but had never won a trophy on the PGA Tour.

All of that has changed in the last few months. The 36-year-old Ohioan won his first PGA Tour event, the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek, last October and won the Charles Schwab Challenge in Texas in late May. One of the best players in the world since golf resumed after the pandemic hiatus, he’s climbed to # 24 on the global rankings. Last week we met Kokrak while on a press tour of his Father’s Day sweepstakes with Eagle Rare Bourbon and Buffalo Trace Distillery. We’ve talked about how he got better with age, how he figured out how to put, what professional golfers like to drink, and more.

Men’s Journal: Not many golfers become the top 25 players in their mid-30s. How did you find that level of play later in your career?

Jason Kokrak: Well, I’ve always been a slow learner at all levels of the game. I was decent early in high school, and in senior year I was pretty good, winning tournaments on a fairly regular basis. Same in college: I’d won a couple of times, but nothing crazy. When I turned pro, I was fine at first. I think I lacked confidence. Then I started winning an event here, an event there, and when I got that feeling of confidence and belonging, I took it to a new level. Once I’ve figured it out and learned how to win, the floodgates open and I play a lot better when I’m more comfortable.

At professional level, all of these guys are good forwards on the ball. All of these guys are good putters and good golf ball throwers. In golf, confidence is a big part of good game.

Have you ever thought of quitting professional golf?

Yes absolutely. My wife and a few other people know this very well. We lived in Charlotte. I started going to job interviews and following the path of getting a real job instead of playing golf to make a living. I was just discouraged after a few years on the mini-tours, not playing great but not bad, and I didn’t want to put the financial burden on myself with a loan or ask other people to support me. I had my last tournament, my last entry fee, my rent – everything culminated in this last event.

I went to an interview; I don’t even remember who it was with. Halfway through the interview, I looked up and said, “Sir, I hate to tell you this, but it’s just not for me. I’m not going to do that. “I went home and that was the butt kick I needed to start the sanding to get to where I am today. I didn’t win the next tournament, but I played very well. I made some money. I thought, “This is what I have to do. I just have to work harder.”

Golf is a game that gives you nothing. You have to work for everything you have in this game. I’ve been doing that for the past couple of years. Every year since middle college, I’d take one facet of the game and say, “Okay, I have to take this to the next level or get a little better.”

If you play well and don’t win, you are still playing well. The victories will come. If you had told me that I had a 10 year career without a win, I would have said “sign up”. I am happy to be able to call myself a two-time winner.

Michael Ainsworth / AP / Shutterstock

Since Phil Mickelson won the PGA Championship, there has been a lot of discussion about what older players need to keep up with these athletic 20-year-olds who are driving the ball off the tee to the devil. What is your training plan like? How did you manage to hang out with this group?

I think it helps to lift and hold my very tall 2 and 4 year old children up and down all day. And do gardening. The week before the PGA Championship, I helped my cousin spread some mulch. I’ve never shied a little manual labor; I used to cut my own grass.

I like to train, but I don’t like the way my game feels when I am training. I’m pissed off. My short game struggled with that. I’ve been trying to eat a little better for the past year or two. Last year I lost about 30 pounds. I’ve gained a few pounds again, but eating healthier and drinking enough water goes a long way toward playing well.

Everyone is a little different. Phil drinks his coffee and does his thing and that seems to work for him. Tiger spent all day on the golf course, exercising in the morning and exercising in the afternoon. It was only golf 24/7. If I did that, I would be burned out very, very quickly. You will learn what works for you and how your game feels best. I’d love to have a six pack and look like a model, but I’m just not that guy.

Many of us spend our entire lives without figuring out how to putt. This year you are one of the best putters in the world based on the strokes won. How did you do it Was it just a matter of switching to a longer putter or did you discover a secret of this incredibly difficult part of golf?

I always say when my coworkers have trouble putting, “Well, you need a D-Rob.” I have a D-Rob and he reads the Greens. [Note: Kokrak’s caddy is David Robinson, a former pro himself.] I don’t consider myself a bad green reader, but there are many subtleties of green reading: Bermuda green as opposed to curved grass, and curved as opposed to Poe. There’s a lot in there. I wouldn’t say I found the secret to putting, but I found a way that works for me. I’ve always had a really good stroke, it just felt a little inconsistent. I used to be more of a mixed putter. I think just general practice and a guy like David Robinson keeping an eye on the alignment, the path and even the grip pressure. He can tell when my grip is too tight.

When we extended the putter to 36, I was able to put both hands full on the putter grip. That seemed to give me more stability in my stroke. I see this a lot, but there is no right way to put it. Tiger Woods was an amazing putter, but most people don’t realize that he opens and closes the putter more than most of the other great putters in the game. There are just so many things that go into putting. You need to figure out what works for you, what you are comfortable with, and what you like to look down on. If you look down at a putter and are uncomfortable looking at it, it will not work.

You’re working with Eagle Rare Bourbon and Buffalo Trace Distillery on a Father’s Day weekend sweepstakes. What is on offer?

It’s been an amazing partnership. I especially like the Eagle Rare ethos of getting higher; It’s an amazing brand to be a partner with.

With the upcoming US Open and Father’s Day we are raffling: a trip for two days that has paid for all costs. You stay at the Stag Lodge in Buffalo Trace, which is fully stocked with Eagle Rare. Get a round of golf at Keene Trace, a PGA Tour venue, and a private distillery tour. Entries will be accepted until June 20th at 11:59 pm EDT. Cant wait to see who wins this thing, it’s an amazing giveaway.

What do you look for in a whiskey?

I like rye, but I’ve been more into wheat bourbons lately. A bit higher alcohol content: I would say 100 to 115 proof would be my ideal range. I like the complexity of the different flavors and it’s fun to do tastings with other people who appreciate it. My brother got me into the bourbon craze and now I have an incredible collection.

As for drinking, I like it pure. When it’s warm outside, I like it on the rocks, maybe with an occasional mixer. If I drink something like Eagle Rare 17 I would just put it in a glass and enjoy. I like having two or three different pours a night, just 1 ounce pins to give me a few different flavor profiles.

You’ve probably sat around clubhouses and restaurants with your tour professionals. What are you drinking?

I think the older generation was more into spirits – mixed cocktails, vodka or bourbon or whiskey or whatever it is. The younger generation, my age in the 50 year range, I think it’s more wine. I was a big wine lover for a couple of years along with other tour professionals. Share a bottle of wine at dinner, that sort of thing.

But the youngest generation does not participate as much in the spirits. I think they are more focused on golf all the time. That’s not how I got into the game. I think you have to have some fun. I always tell the guys at the Pro-Ams, “If you can’t get out of here and have some fun, don’t do it.”

Go out and have fun with your fellow tour professionals, share a couple of glasses of bourbon or a couple of glasses of wine, shoot the shit and enjoy what we’ve all done. You have to enjoy it and make the most of it.

If you could sip bourbon for an hour with a tour professional who would you choose?

I would say my buddy, Pat Perez. I made him do it – I think he was bitten by the bourbon virus.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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