Schmitt: Lessons I learned in 2021 from Jason Kokrak, Patrick Cantlay (and his caddie), and Keith Mitchell

What makes working for one of the world’s largest news organizations (Gannett/USA Today) covering the world’s greatest game as exhilarating as a thrill ride atop a Vegas casino is the uninterrupted news cycle.

There is no true downtime. No actual silly season. When the PGA and LPGA tours are slow, there’s a bevy of captivating amateur and college stories to sift through. When that tapers off, there’s always a new course to dig into, a new swing technique to consider, or a groundbreaking piece of equipment that might just transform you from weekend warrior to Champions Tour contender.

And while it’s easy to get self-indulgent about your own year around this great sport — OK, I’ll play along, I roughed things up at Olympic Club, Bay Hill, Torrey Pines (with Mike Whan), Austin Country Club, TPC Scottsdale, Houston’s Memorial Park, and Whispering Pines, among others in 2021 — what I truly appreciate are the lessons we learn along the way.

For example, our Beth Ann Nichols considered one of her 2021 highlights a conversation she had with 94-year-old legend Shirley Spork, one that illustrated the absurdity of this sport we love:

“Golf is a game that in four and a half hours you’re a star; you’re a bum; you’re average,” Spork said. “In 18 holes, you’re all those things. Golf is not a game of perfect, it’s a game of playable misses.”


And while I only attend a handful of events, leaving the coverage heavy lifting to stars like Nichols, Steve DiMeglio, Adam Schupak, Eamon Lynch and David Dusek, I was reminded of a few key lessons while pitching in:

Jason Kokrak (USA) and Kevin Na (USA) react during the final round of the 2021 QBE Shootout, Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, at Tiburón Golf Club at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, Fla. 2021 QBE Shootout final round.

From Jason Kokrak:
Laugh at the highs, and the lows

My question came out awkwardly. Moments after he’d captured the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Houston Open, his third PGA Tour victory overall and second in the state of Texas, I pointed out to Jason Kokrak how horribly he’d played the back nine at Memorial Park through the first two rounds.

Since he lit up the back on Sunday, he must have figured out something along the way, right?

I opened with, “not just the Saturday morning debacle that you had, but you didn’t play the back very well in your first round either.”

Kokrak sat up a bit.

“Easy with ‘the debacle,’ ” Kokrak replied, looking sternly my way.

A few seconds later, the 6-foot-4 Ohio resident let out a hearty Midwestern laugh.

“Yeah … it was a debacle,” he said with a wide smile. “I got into some uncomfortable situations for me and I compounded the problem myself, but I tried not to let that bug me.”

To follow Kokrak on a Sunday is to see an affable fellow, one who’s plenty competitive, but after years of toiling in the middle of the pack, has used a slightly elongated putter to enjoy a new level of success.

But now that he’s a changed player, Kokrak doesn’t seem to have changed his personality much — he’s a big, strong likable guy who didn’t mind playing antagonist to Jordan Spieth at Colonial and was happy to joke about his ugly play early on at Houston. The game is too hard to not enjoy a good laugh.

Kokrak keeps laughing, just now with deeper pockets.

Team USA player Patrick Cantlay reacts to the gallery on the 17th green during day two foursomes rounds for the 43rd Ryder Cup golf competition at Whistling Straits. Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

From Patrick Cantlay (and his caddie): Ride things out until you get hot

Like Billy Horschel before him, Patrick Cantlay turned one hot streak into a career-altering season, but it could have easily gone another way.

It’s easy to forget that Cantlay had a stretch last spring in which he failed to make the weekend four times in six starts. He missed the cut at both the Masters and the British Open.

But Cantlay was nothing if not an opportunist. His win at the Memorial will be more remembered as the tournament that saw leader Jon Rahm stripped from the field due to a positive COVID test.

Things got interesting as the lucrative FedEx Cup playoffs approached — his caddie, Matt Minister, tested positive for COVID and while he was out, Cantlay brought in Tiger Woods’ caddie, Joe LaCava, for the first playoff event.

But instead of sending Cantlay into a tailspin, he put together a solid showing at the Northern Trust with LaCava, then got white-hot with Minister back on his bag — winning the BMW Championship and eventually taking home the $15 million FedEx Cup after an impressive showing at the Tour Championship.

For “the Rev” (what else would you call a man named Minister?), that meant a shift from thinking he might be out of a gig to financial security for life.

“Never in my wildest dreams,” the caddie told Craig Dolch when asked to describe the events. “I knew Patrick was playing well … part of it hasn’t set in yet.”

PGA: Zurich Classic of New Orleans - Final Round

Keith Mitchell walks the 13th fairway during the final round of the Zurich Classic of the New Orleans golf tournament. Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

From Keith Mitchell:
This is still fun, dammit.

While covering the aforementioned Houston Open, I received an invite for a private event with a few of the Sweetens Cove owners, including Peyton Manning.

I assumed Peyton would do the typical ambassador fly-by — the type of pop-in that celebrities have to offer when they’re associated with a brand.

Instead, Manning was one of the first at the gathering, and his initial order of business was to fill out a name tag. As if others might not recognize him.

Soon after Manning arrived, so did PGA Tour star Keith Mitchell, who was eager to talk about the course that sits less than an hour from his home in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

When I asked how he got involved with the leadership group, Mitchell joked that they asked him to come aboard soon after he won the 2019 Honda Classic, “because they probably assumed I had some money to burn.” Mitchell is a cool character, one who eases through a room rather than charging it, as Manning does.

But Mitchell’s eyes perked when I asked why he was on-hand at this event, especially since he was in the middle of a workweek. Was he obligated to attend? Was this contractual?

“Yeah, I’m not here for any of that (expletive). I’m here because this is fun. This is really fun,” he said. “We have a golf course that’s fun and playable and a bourbon that tastes great. How do you beat that?”

You don’t.

It must be easy to fall into the trappings that surround Tour players. Free stuff. Big money. Access to anything.

But at the end of the day, it’s still a game. An incredible game. And perhaps the best way to enjoy time with good friends. I’ve yet to make the trek to Sweetens, but those who have insist it’s the perfect place to get together with your favorite people.

This has not been lost on Mitchell, who clearly has his head on his shoulders.

Happy holidays, all. While 2021 might not have been perfect, it was another year for lessons, incredible stories, and some great walks following a little white ball.