Rutledge's odyssey has culminated in a coveted card.
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A 47-Year-Old Tour Virgin,
Jim Rutledge is Oldest Rookie
By Alan Shipnuck
Dec. 12, 2006
When the PGA Tour season kicks off next month, 47-year-old Jim
Rutledge will hardly be your typical rookie. In more than a quarter
century of pro golf, spread across Canada, Asia, Europe and the
Nationwide tour, Rutledge has seen and done it all. He's teed it up with
Gary Player and Arnold Palmer, and at the 1990 British Open, where he
was on the leader board at the Old Course heading into the weekend.
"I missed Nicklaus by one group," Rutledge says.
He has played through monkeys in Singapore and snakes in Thailand
and kept home bases in London and the Philippines. Along the way
he's become a walking Zagat survey, able to tell you where to find the
best lemon chicken in Kuala Lumpur, the tenderest Kobe beef in Tokyo
and the tastiest vegetable samosas in Calcutta.
Note that Rutledge doesn't recommend his typical breakfast when
playing in India -- two samosas and a Coke. "You'll have heartburn by
the 2nd hole," he says gravely.
Rutledge's long journey across the golf landscape began in his native
Victoria, B.C., where he picked up the game at age 10. By 17 he had
won two Canadian junior national championships, and in his spare
time he would travel down the coast to Seattle, where he beat up on his
contemporary, Fred Couples. "He was fantastic," says Couples. "I
would say he was as good or better than me most of the time. He was
extremely talented." And that's coming from one of the most naturally
talented players ever to pick up a club.
Rutledge turned pro in 1978, and at 19 won his first event on the
Canadian tour. Over the next two decades he typically spent
Decembers and the first three months of the year playing in Asia,
returning during summers to the Canadian tour (where he has six
career victories and is second, to Mike Grob, on the all-time money
list). From '88 through '91 he played on the European tour, back when it
was the center of the golf universe. Wherever Rutledge went he wowed
with his talent.
"I remember my first couple of years playing the Canadian tour, I didn't
want to play a practice round with the guy," says Mike Weir, who last
week teamed with Rutledge to represent Canada at the World Cup in
St. James, Barbados. "I hit it so crappy, and he hit it so pure, it was like,
How am I ever going to beat someone like this? So I stayed away from
him to keep my confidence up."
"Jim has one of the best swings in the world," says Ted Purdy, the
2005 Byron Nelson Championship winner who roomed with Rutledge
on the Asian tour in 1997 and '98. "He is probably the most underrated
player in all of golf."
If the 40-year-old virgin was a shut-in afraid to experience life, the
47-year-old rookie is exactly the opposite, a free spirit who was so
happy in so many different places that he was never too concerned
about making it to the PGA Tour. Rutledge regularly went through the
motions at the Tour's Q school but wasn't bothered much when he
inevitably fell short. "It was not the be-all and end-all for me," Rutledge
says of the big stage in the U.S. "I enjoyed the experience of being in
Asia. I enjoyed being at home in Victoria. I was always surrounded by
people I liked, and I was making good money. It was a nice life."
Beginning in 2000 Rutledge consolidated his schedule on the
Nationwide tour, largely for family reasons. His son, Ryan, was
entering middle school in Victoria and could no longer jet off to exotic
locales with his mom, Jill, for weeks at a time, as had always been the
custom. In 2001 both Jill and her father, Tom Smith, had symptoms
that were diagnosed as cancer. Smith died in '03, but Jill fought on,
and after surgery, radiation and chemotherapy she has been given a
clean bill of health. After his wife's recovery something changed in
"Jim always had that typical Canadian mentality: Just go with the flow,"
says Purdy. "He never really pushed himself, but he didn't have to
because his game was so solid. Jill inspired him. He saw her tenacity
and her fight and it rubbed off."
In November 2005 Rutledge went through Q school for a 13th time and
flunked out yet again. This time it stung. "I was playing good, and I
thought I should have made it through," he says.
Rutledge was ready for that Q school because instead of hibernating in
Victoria when the weather got cold, he had stayed at Purdy's house in
Phoenix to keep working on his game, a practice he continued this
year. "The kids call our guest room Jim's Room," says Purdy. "He
drives my cars and drinks my beer, but he's a great guest. He'll do the
laundry and clean the house before he leaves. He's a better husband
than I am."
In addition to a more committed practice schedule, Rutledge has also
upgraded his mental game. In August 2005 he picked up Gio
Valiante's Fearless Golf, and he carries it with him to this day, the
dog-eared pages covered in notes he has scrawled in the margins.
For years Rutledge had been known as Mr. Sunday on the Nationwide
tour because of a long history of going low during the final round when
he was out of contention and thus could get out of his own way. But at
this year's New Zealand PGA Championship last February he finally
hung up a gaudy number when it mattered, shooting a final-round 64 to
earn his first victory since the 1999 British Columbia Open. "Winning
early in the year gave me a big shot of confidence and allowed me to
play more aggressively," Rutledge says. "I wanted to put my foot on the
pedal and keep it there."
He built on the victory with four other top seven finishes and then a
solid stretch run during which he landed in the top 25 in the final four
events, pushing him to 14th on the Nationwide money list and securing
his PGA Tour card for 2007. (Each year the top 20 Nationwide players
are automatically promoted to the PGA Tour.) Ryan, now 17, and Jill
flew to Houston for the season-ending tournament, and when the final
putt dropped and the Tour card had been officially clinched, "the
floodgates opened," Jill says. "A lot of years of tears came pouring out."
Jill has been by Jim's side for every step of the last 19 years, often
caddying for him in Europe and Asia while doing double duty as a
mom, which often was dirty work. "One time we were in Thailand using
one of those public restrooms where there was just a hole in the
ground," says Jill. "Ryan was about two, and sure enough he drops his
favorite toy down the hole. He's screaming and crying and carrying on,
and it's not as if I can easily find another one of these action figures, so
I reach down into the hole and pull it out. While I'm doing that the room
key falls down the hole, so now I have to get that, too. I'll never forget
that, even though I'd like to."
Last week the Rutledges found themselves in Barbados in an
altogether different setting. The swanky host resort was Sandy Lane,
which became famous in 2004 when Tiger Woods was married there.
While the other wives and girlfriends basted and bronzed themselves
on the beach, Jill walked nearly every hole that her husband played on
the hilly Country Club course. After all these years she still employs
plenty of body English when Jim putts, trying to coax the ball into the
hole. Jill has the intensity of an accomplished jock, which she was. As
an amateur athlete in her 20s she won a gold medal in field hockey at
the Canada Games and her team won the Canadian Junior National
Championships in basketball, plus she's a past club champion at
Victoria's Uplands Golf Club. Balky knees have forced Jill to quit
caddying, which hasn't been easy on her. "It kills me sometimes to be
on this side of the ropes, helpless," she says.
Jim is far more relaxed on the course, gliding around with a manner
that is "as laid-back as Ernie Els'," according to Weir. Rutledge's swing
is long, languid and upright, with beautiful balance and rhythm that call
to mind Tom Weiskopf.
Rutledge and Weir never generated any momentum, finishing 15th in
the 24-team event, 10 strokes behind the winners, Bernhard Langer
and Marcel Siem of Germany. Nevertheless, Rutledge enjoyed a week
of reunions with acquaintances from Europe (Langer, Colin
Montgomerie, Jean Van de Velde), Asia (Mark Hensby) and the
Nationwide tour (Esteban Toledo and Camilo Villegas).
"All of us are so thrilled for Jim," Van de Velde said. "He's a really good
guy who always fit in very nicely in Europe. He's not one of those North
Americans who can't travel, who complains if he can't eat every meal at
McDonald's. He can play anywhere, anytime, and I feel he will have no
problem adapting to the PGA Tour."
Rutledge's Nationwide stats this year certainly suggest that he's ready.
He ranked first in final-round scoring average, 10th in total driving, 17th
in greens in regulation and 20th in scrambling. Jimmy Big Bomber
also had the longest recorded drive of the year, a 410-yard missile, and
only four players made more than his 15 eagles.
The excitable Purdy has high hopes for his old friend. "I expect Jim to
win a tournament next year, and I expect him to be rookie of the year,"
he says. "People are going to be blown away by how good this guy is."
Typically, Rutledge's goals for his first PGA Tour season are more
modest. "I simply want to have fun and savor the experience," he says.
"I can't wait to play all the courses I've seen on TV."
The World Cup was his first small taste of life in the big time. With all
the players staying at Sandy Lane, its private beach became a popular
gathering spot in the afternoon. One day a couple of English Ryder Cup
stars -- Luke Donald and David Howell -- made a splash with a noisy
swimming competition to a distant dock. Everyone tried to avert his or
her eyes from the unforgettable sight of Miguel Angel Jiménez strutting
around in a black Speedo smoking a cigar, with his Spafro spilling out
from beneath a porkpie hat. Montgomerie took a long walk on the
beach at sunset, looking mopey as he was alone in paradise.
In the middle of it all was Rutledge, seeming very much at ease. At
twilight he and his wife and son bodysurfed in the warm waters of the
Caribbean. From under the blue umbrellas on the sand, Rutledge
could be heard laughing heartily, and why not? After 28 years and a
million miles, he has finally arrived.
Jill and Ryan (center) joined Jim in Barbados for the
World Cup, at which the Canadians finished 15th.
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