Jason Kokrak’s original travel plans from his home in Ohio to Spain seemed simple enough. Fly from Cleveland to Newark. Then Newark to Malaga, the biggest airport near Valderrama, hosts the course for LIV Golf Andalucía.
All right, Kokrak thought, this will be easy.
But then … his flight was cancelled. That cost him one day and forced him to change his itinerary. So now it became Cleveland to Detroit, then Detroit to Paris, then Paris to Malaga. One additional flight but no other complications.
But then … multiple missed connections. Sometimes by just minutes. Layovers turned from manageable to intolerable. As Kokrak’s travel time increased, so did his stress level.
“Just people not showing up for work, driving the jet bridge – it’s unfathomable,” Kokrak said. “I understand you have certain situations, but every single time. I don’t get it. I think the airlines are at a point where they’re basically banking on the plane flying faster to make up time for stupidity.”
Originally two flights, he finally made it to Spain after four flights -– Cleveland to Detroit, Detroit to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Frankfurt, and Frankfurt to Malaga. He arrived at his rental house at 1 a.m. Wednesday morning. Tired physically. Exhausted mentally. And with a tee time approximately 60 hours away on a course, he had never seen.
Of course, getting himself to Spain was just half the issue. There was also the matter of when his luggage would arrive – particularly his clubs. The tools he uses to make a living. The tools his fellow Smash GC teammates rely on for contributing low scores.
His Air Tags already had sent out digital distress signals. His bags evidently had found a comfortable spot and decided to become squatters, with no intention of changing locations. “I thought my Air Tags were broken,” Kokrak said, “because my luggage hadn’t moved in over a day.”
So, he was in Spain, but his clubs were not. A backup plan was hatched. Kokrak, his coach Drew Steckel, and his agent found a local golf shop 20 minutes away and headed to go pick them up. Once the clubs were collected, Kokrak planned to have them reshafted and dialled in.
But then … his Air Tags sent out an update. His bags were in Paris, just a 2-1/2 hour flight away. While at lunch, Kokrak got a call. The girlfriend of Nick Heinen, the caddie for Smash teammate Matthew Wolff, had flown to Malaga – and she just happened to be on the same flight as Kokrak’s clubs. As she picked up her luggage from the carousel reserved for international baggage, she just happened to notice Kokrak’s club travel bag lying around.
She called Nick. “What do I do?”
His reply: “Grab them.”
And so, she walked out of the airport with her luggage and the reluctant-to-travel clubs, was picked up by a driver, and delivered to Kokrak. It was 5 p.m. Thursday.
His tee time was now 20 hours away. And Kokrak had still not taken a single shot at Valderrama. He spent the evening – it doesn’t get dark in this part of Spain until 10 p.m. – with Steckel on the range. The session was a productive one. And yet Kokrak couldn’t help but shake his head.
“Kind of a crazy situation,” said Kokrak, vying for Understatement of the Year.
In between all this, Kokrak at least found the time to walk the front nine at Valderrama. Before Friday’s first round, he got up early and walked the back nine. He then added another half-hour to his normal warmup routine.
Then he took his first shot ever at Valderrama, at the par-4 eight. Made par. He then bogeyed the par-4 ninth. On a tough course made even more difficult under windy conditions, it was an ominous sign.
But then … a birdie at the par-4 10th. Then another one at the par-5 11th. Then another one at the par-3 12th – the third hardest hole at the course. Three consecutive birdies on holes he had never played.
Kokrak may have been playing the course blind, but his well-rested clubs had 20-20 vision. He wasn’t surprised.
“I left home striking it nice, playing well, and really pleased with the clubs I have in my bag,” he said. “I was confident when I got my clubs – as long as they weren’t broken or bent.”
Six consecutive pars followed the three straight birdies. He then birdied holes Nos. 1 and 2. He suffered a bogey at the par-5 fourth but bounced back with a birdie at the fifth, then parred the last two holes.
He walked off the seventh green, his last hole of the day, with a 4-under 67 – and a share of the first-round lead with Dustin Johnson.
It was as miraculous and as unlikely a round as you might imagine, given the circumstances and the difficulty of the course. But in this sense, perhaps ignorance truly is bliss. Like all the others seeing Valderrama for the first time this week, Kokrak had no scar tissue. Unlike his fellow competitors, he really had nothing to challenge the most basic of game plans.
“I tell people, you tend to play golf courses that you haven’t played better the first time around than you do after you’ve seen them,” Kokrak said. “After you’ve seen them a couple of times, you know where the trouble is, you know where not to hit it.
“You play a golf course blind and it’s like, ‘Here’s your yardage, here’s your shot, hit it here.’ You just kind of commit to your shot. I think you commit to your shot a little bit better not seeing the golf course.”
Kokrak has shot lower scores in his career. It’s doubtful he’s shot a more impressive one, given all the circumstances. In a season that has thus far failed to meet his expectations, perhaps Friday will be the turning point.
“This could be a confidence booster today,” Kokrak said, “but tomorrow is a new day.”
Thankfully, he can sleep in. The clubs are safely stored. He’s played the course now. Everything is good for the next two days.
Then he’ll fly to London for LIV Golf’s next tournament.
Wish him luck.