Rude: Smallest player Kruger swings big stick

Jbe Kruger celebrates after winning the Avantha Masters.

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DORAL, Fla. – Jbé Kruger stands 5 feet 5 1/3 inches and tips the scale at 135 pounds. That makes him the smallest player on the PGA European Tour and the most pint-sized fellow here at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. That also means Paris Hilton has steamer trunks that weigh more and Rory McIlroy could bench-press him.

Kruger, a 25-year-old from South Africa, has heard the little-guy talk for years. He not only accepts it, he embraces it.

“There are good factors in being the smallest,” he said, smiling as usual. “I think guys definitely underestimate me when they see me. But after my first shot, they don’t.”

Kruger is done growing vertically but not as a golfer. His rise as a player in the past year has been nothing if not remarkable. He knocked around the South African and Asian tours to gain experience after turning pro in 2007, and starting ’11 he wasn’t exempt on the European Tour, where he had played but a dozen events. But he took advantage of invites and co-sanctioned events in Asia and South Africa last year, had five top-10 finishes, rose to 92nd in the Race to Dubai standings and secured a card for 2012.

Then he won the Avantha Masters in India last month for a two-year Euro tour exemption and a ticket to his biggest tournament yet and his first trip to the United States.

“I think it’s amazing, actually,” he said, smiling wider than usual after shooting 72-71–143 on Doral’s Blue Monster, good for a tie for 34th midway. “This is a dream come true. I mean, all the top 50 in the world are here. I didn’t expect it to happen this fast.”

Known for his excellent ball-striking and work ethic, as well as an affable demeanor and spiritual bent, Kruger has elevated to 109 in the world. As for how high he can go, he said, “Almost the best in the world. To compete better, I need to work on my short game.”

That short game was honed on sand-and-oil greens at a South African club where he was a member until age 14. Blacks, those surfaces were called. He didn’t putt on a grass green until he was 12.

His father, a marathon runner who built strong legs by pulling tractor tires, taught him golf and made him a deal: If he became a scratch player by 18, he could quit school and turn pro. Over two years he reduced his handicap from 6 to plus 6, by age 16. Idolizing South African legend Gary Player because of his similar physical stature, Kruger went on to have a highly successful amateur career.

Understandably, the last couple of years he has been encouraged by the major-championship success of compatriots Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel. “It makes me feel I can do it,” he said.

Branden Grace, another South African in the Cadillac field of 74 players, knew Kruger back in their amateur days. Now he marvels at the progression.

“He’s a small guy with a big heart,” Grace said. “I’m glad all his hard work has paid off.”

You might say Kruger got more than experience in those three years in Asia. He got a sense of what not to eat.

“The food was interesting,” he said, laughing. “They eat cockroaches.”

Cockroaches?

“Yeah,” he said. “And scorpion. I’ve seen fried scorpion. But I ate normal stuff.”

And went to the gym.

A workout buff, Kruger has length off the tee that belies his size. He figures one of his downwind drives here traveled 350 yards. On the two measured holes in Round 1, his drives averaged 294.5 yards.

He pounds it out there thanks to a bigger turn than normal, high hands, wide arc and a hard swing. He laughs at the notion the golf ball doesn’t know how big he is.

“Otherwise I wouldn’t have gone so far,” he said.

He was talking about his distance off the tee. He could just as well have been talking about his career.

Those long drives are produced after considerable fidgeting at address. Shirt collar up, Kruger wiggles his butt sometimes four times while getting set. Then he shakes his arms and shoulders before making a quarter-swing waggle and a Raymond Floyd-like hitch at the top and a mighty lash. Not that he should be wearing dancing shoes, but the routine has an Elvis Presley feel to it.

“I’m not concentrating on my butt,” Kruger said, laughing. “I’m just trying to square up my shoulders or get them open because they tend to get closed.”

Jbé is short for James Barry é Kruger and is pronounced J.B. The first two days he was paired in a twosome with another vertically challenged player with a first name that also has been butchered: The 5-8 1/2 Chez Reavie.

For a change, Reavie towered over an opponent. “It’s nice,” he said.

Before their first round together, Reavie was unsure how to pronounce Kruger’s name. So he went up and said, “Hi, I’m Chez,” and got J.B. in return.

Interestingly, the only two people who walked in their gallery most of the second round were your correspondent and Reavie’s wife, Amanda. When Kruger birdied 15, the gallery was swollen to 20. Considering the norm, he must have felt like he was in Times Square.

But the two golfers got on nicely in seclusion, talking amongst themselves. Among other things, Kruger told Reavie he was surprised everyone was speaking Spanish when he went to South Beach on Wednesday night.

“I told him not to think of Miami as a good definition of what America is,” Reavie said. “That he has to go out and experience different parts of the country.”

That’s Kruger’s plan. Particularly visits to the parts that host major golf tournaments.

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