Keeping It Real Hardly your typical Tour player, Jonathan Kaye says one of his goals this season is simply to blend in

May 02, 2004

It's easy to see why all eyes are on Jonathan Kaye as he walks
through the bar off the main lobby at La Costa Resort and Spa in
Carlsbad, Calif., during February's Accenture Match Play
Championship. His oversized Drunken Monkey jersey is
appropriately fly, and his low-slung jeans are stylishly urban.
The Titleist cap atop his head is slightly askew, and there's a
well-groomed soul patch beneath his lower lip. He has all the
accoutrements of rebellion not often seen on the bleached-white,
church-whisper PGA Tour, and the thwock-thwock sound made by his
flip-flops rounds out the effect. What is this guy, a two-time
Tour winner or a skate rat who has evaded security?

On the course Kaye is all pro, an admired ball striker, a
fearless putter and, at 33, a rising star who in the last year
has jumped from 141st to 17th in the World Ranking and into
contention for a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. (He's 10th on
the points list.) Off the course he is anything but the
stereotypical Tour pro, more Grateful Dead than Hootie and the
Blowfish, more fixer-upper than McMansion.

Kaye's reputation as the Tour's renegade was, rightly or wrongly,
cemented by what he calls the incident--a dispute with a security
guard over Kaye's I.D. at the 2001 Michelob Championship in
Williamsburg, Va., that resulted in Kaye's being suspended for
two months by Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. "I've accepted that
people will always ask about it," Kaye says, "because it sounds
better if I'm a bad boy. It's like, What else can I do? Was that
a long time ago? Yep. Was I a different person then? Yep. Does it
matter still? I don't think so."

This year has been all about finally getting past the incident.
"Jonny decided that he was going to do everything he could to
blend in," says his wife, Jennifer. "No more rocking the boat. No
more doing his own thing."

Jennifer, a former Futures tour pro who met Kaye in college, at
Colorado, and caddied for him during his first seven years on
Tour, is a trusted confidante, deft at offering Kaye a swing
thought or silence, depending on what the situation calls for.
They dated for nearly a decade as he climbed through the
mini-tours and made two trips to Q school. They were married in
December 2002. "Jen mellows me out," says Kaye. "She gets me and
knows my game better than anyone else. She's everything I need."

Says Kaye's mother, Ellen Dean, "He's so hard on himself. When
it's not going well, I fear that he thinks he's letting us all
down. Jen picks him up."

Jennifer sees it slightly differently. "I can point something out
to him about his swing, and he might listen," she says, "but
Jonny's success is his own." As for the incident, she says, "I
hated that people thought they knew him just because of past
stuff. There's so much to him. It's just that he wants to keep
some of it private, even from us. Like, he doesn't talk about his
goals because, Why let everyone down?"

At home in Phoenix the Kayes lead a sedate life, preferring
cookouts with friends and neighbors at their World War II-era,
Santa Barbara-style house in the central part of the city to
socializing with the Scottsdale Mafia--the dozen or so Tour pros
who live in nearby suburban enclaves. "Jonathan's lifelong best
friend lives two blocks away," says Ellen. "Richie [Caniglia,
Kaye's caddie and longtime pal] lives even closer. Jonathan still
lives in his old school district. It's who he is."

In matters of golf Kaye is more rugged individualist than rebel.
In an age of swing coaches and sports psychologists, he's a
throwback, a self-taught player. "It's not that I don't think
anyone needs [coaches]," he says, "but I've never had a problem
believing I was going to win. Of course, if you watched me warm
up before a round, you'd wonder how I ever qualified in the first
place." Says fellow Tour pro Tim Herron, "He knows what he's
doing. He's different--and what's wrong with different?"

Kaye has always been self-reliant. After his parents divorced
when he was five, Kaye spent the school months in Phoenix with
Ellen and summers in Denver with his father, Joel, a
pediatrician. It was in Denver, at City Park Golf Course, that
Jonathan fell hard for the game. He also showed enough promise
that he soon learned how to play under pressure. As a preteen he
was drafted into money games with men more than twice his age and
often found himself standing over putts worth thousands of
dollars.

"I look back and think, Man, I can't believe I was hanging out
with some of those people," Kaye says. "But most of them set up
their lives around golf because they loved it. That stuck."

After graduating in 1994 from Colorado, at which he was a walk-on
turned All-America, Kaye played well enough to get through Q
school in the fall of 1994. Rotator-cuff surgery cost him most of
the '96 and '97 seasons, and when he returned in '98, his
confidence was shot. Kaye played so poorly that by October he was
forced to return to Q school. "I started to think that maybe I'd
had my run," he says. "It was almost to the point where I quit. I
couldn't play. I couldn't swing. I didn't know what to do." Says
Jennifer, "It was the worst year of our lives."

Three weeks before Q school, almost as an act of desperation,
Kaye contacted Manuel de la Torre, the legendary swing coach from
Milwaukee, who was in Phoenix working with some club pros. Kaye
was more confused than impressed when de la Torre told him to
address his ball with a driver, then stood two feet behind Kaye
and commanded him to swing.

"But I'll hit you," Kaye said.

"Swing the club," said de la Torre, sounding like Mr. Miyagi in
The Karate Kid.

Forced to keep his hands inside, Kaye rotated on a perfect plane
and smoked the ball. After 15 minutes of similar swings, "I was
back," Kaye says. "I felt better than I'd ever felt before. It
was almost scary." Kaye tore through Q school, coming in second
to Mike Weir. In 1999 Kaye finished 49th on the money list and
has never looked back.

The incident in 2001 has been a lesson almost as valuable as de
la Torre's. Always an emotional player, Kaye has learned to stay
focused and not dwell on mistakes. "I look back and see that I
used to let my emotions get me at times," he says. "That's part
of being young, screwing up and, if you're lucky, not making the
same mistakes again."

Kaye finally broke through with a victory at the 2003 Buick
Classic, and he cemented his status as a comer by finishing 16th
on the '03 money list. His other win came in February's FBR Open
in Phoenix, where he shot a final-round 67 to outshine
hometown--by way of San Diego--hero Phil Mickelson. "No
disrespect to Phil," says Jennifer, "but Jonny's actually from
Phoenix."

About 500 family members and friends were in Kaye's gallery at
the TPC of Scottsdale that Sunday, and some of them were allowed
to follow him down the final fairway. Afterward Jonathan,
Jennifer and about 100 others took the party to Ellen's house,
where Kaye parked himself in front of the TV with his grandfather
Jerry Kaye to watch the Super Bowl. Kaye was in heaven. "He was
kickin' it with his grandfather," says Barry Blalock, John
Rollins's caddie and a friend. "With him it's friends and family.
He's a private dude, not a party animal at all. I doubt he even
had a beer."

Kaye was slowed by a sciatic-nerve injury for most of March, but
he kept busy working with Jennifer on renovating their house in
Phoenix, fussing over fixtures, moldings and a new garden. After
he recovered, he missed the cut at the Players Championship and
the Masters, but he remains upbeat. Two weeks ago he finished
11th at the MCI Heritage, and he and Caniglia have been hard at
work soft-tossing a baseball. Kaye threw out the first pitch at
Monday's Cubs-Diamondbacks game.

Even so, life has never been more conventional, more average,
more simple. To which Kaye might smile and say, Finally.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JASON WISE STAR BILLING Despite his local acclaim, Jonathan and Jennifer (far left) hardly cause a stir in their Phoenix neighborhood. COLOR PHOTO: HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES LONG JON Kaye is 35th (290 yards) in driving distance. COLOR PHOTO: NICK DOAN/ICON SMI HOMEBOY Kaye, the real Phoenix native, delighted in outplayingArizona State grad and fan fave Mickelson at the FBR Open.

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