As Ben Kern prepares to defend his title at the Tanos Exploration II/Patterson-UTI Drilling Texas State Open, he is resting a sore elbow while enjoying the memory of a whirlwind two weeks of superb golf last August.
“It’s just a tennis elbow or golfer’s elbow or whatever you want to call it,” Kern said via the phone from Georgetown Country Club where he has been the club professional for just over a year. “I was prescribed something to help with the inflammation and told to rest it. So I won’t play until the Sunday pro-am before the tournament.”
The Sunday pro-am will kick off the 49th playing of the state open with official play Tuesday through Friday at The Cascades Golf & Country Club, hosting the event for a record eighth time.
A red-hot 62 during the third round last year, followed by a steady final round of conservative ball striking, propelled Kern to his win. The victory netted Kern $42,500 which made his subsequent drive north to St. Louis for the 2018 PGA Championship a lot more enjoyable. With his wife and young daughter accompanying him, Kern arrived at the PGA and continued his good play.
Kern rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt on his 36th hole to make the cut on the number and was the only club pro of the 20 in the field to play all four rounds.
Over the weekend at Bellerive Country Club, the former Kansas State University golfer proved he belonged with the big boys with a bogey-free 67 on Saturday and an even par 70 on Sunday. The end result was the lowest 72-hole score ever by a club pro at the PGA (277) and another nice check for $31,000.
“That IRS check was a little painful but well worth it,” Kern said. “Having two paydays like those last year was a long time coming.”
Perhaps even more meaningful than the money was the experience of playing well with well-known pros like former Masters and British Open champion Zach Johnson. Kern played with Johnson on Sunday and made such a favorable impression that Johnson later told the media he thought Kern belonged on tour because of his quality shot making.
“That means a lot coming from someone who has won major championships,” Kern said. “I gained a lot of confidence from that and from how I played at the Cascades leading up to the PGA. The people at the Cascades and from Tyler were so supportive of the tournament and me that it makes me really excited about getting back there this year.”
Kern touched on what many think is the best thing about having the state open in Tyler. Having it in a smaller market as opposed to the larger cities allows golf fans in East Texas to see golf played at a level just below that of the PGA Tour. Most of the pros playing in the state open are on the cusp of advancing to the highest level. That has been the case for Shawn Stefani of Port Arthur, who won at the Cascades in 2011 and gone on to have a profitable career on the PGA Tour.
“Winning the state open is a great achievement because it is a showcase of young pros who want to get to the next level,” Kern said of the tournament that returned to Tyler last year after a six-year absence.
Kern took some time to look back and marvel at how things unfolded. He said he had played in five state opens and always finished in the top 20 as he worked hard to earn a tour card. Then, after finally giving up on that dream and taking a club pro job, he felt a release from a constant pressure to perform and began to play well.
“I know it’s a mental thing but that doesn’t mean you can improve on that part of the game just because you want to. I had to experience the freedom of not having to perform to begin to play the kind of golf I always felt capable of,” Kern said.
Such are the ironies of the ever-present mental side of competitive golf. Wanting badly to succeed as a touring pro, Kern put pressure on himself to perform and though he had his moments, he never could break through.
It was the great Bobby Jones who once said that golf is played on a six-inch course. The six inches being the space between one’s ears where good or bad thoughts take place and often determine one’s performance.
Kern will be the first to tell you that he doesn’t look like a typical touring pro golfer. He’s tall at 6-foot-2 and heavyset at 280 pounds, sporting a physique similar to that of recent British Open winner Shane Lowry. Kern looks more like a football player than a golfer and even commented on a famous former football player in the state open field this year.
“Tony Romo has a very good move at the ball,” Kern said. “He is certainly capable of some low rounds but putting it together for four rounds is always the biggest challenge.”
Kern came to Tyler without any fanfare last year but used good ball striking, savvy course management and a quality short game to win. Then he kept it going on a much longer and more difficult Bellerive course that previously hosted a U.S. Open won by Gary Player in 1965.
“I had never played in a PGA Tour event, much less a major championship before the PGA,” Kern said. “And what absolutely blew me away the most were the crowds. There were so many people out there watching and even my groups with lesser known pros had nice galleries. It made me wonder just how large the crowds were following Tiger Woods and Brooks Koepka.”
Of his title defense, citing the sore elbow, Kern is cautiously optimistic.
“I’m not even sure I can play with this elbow but will find out soon enough at the pro-am. But one thing for sure is that I am looking forward to driving onto the property at the Cascades and seeing a lot of the nice folks there. I know it will remind me of last year and what I am capable of doing.”
OPEN NOTES: There is an admission fee to attend the tournament, which begins on Tuesday. ... The Texas State Open has a long and storied history. The Open began in 1960 when the great amateur Homero Blancas captured the title. Since then, some of golf’s greatest names have captured the championship, including Lee Trevino and Ben Crenshaw. ... Tanos Exploration II and Patterson-UTI Drilling’s continued commitment and support as title sponsors of the Texas State Open make this championship one of the premier state opens in the country, tournament officials said. The 49th Tanos Exploration II/Patterson-UTI Drilling Texas State Open will feature the largest purse in State Open history — more than $200,000. ... The Cascades is located at 4511 Briarwood Road in Tyler (75709). ... Starting times will run from approximately 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Nos. 1 and 10 tees (subject to change). ... Tee times will be announced on Monday. ... The course will play 6,882 yards for a par 70.