With self-belief, Renner clears big hurdle on Tour

Jim Renner during the PGA Tour's 2014 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Jim Renner during the PGA Tour's 2014 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Numbers tell a story. On the one hand, in 77 tournaments combined on the PGA and Web.com tours across three-plus seasons, Jim Renner had earned $661,111. On the other hand, in one tournament last week, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Renner earned $580,800.

So, which story do you read? The one that makes you focus on the first set of numbers and wonder, “Where did this kid come from?” Or the one that instructor Adam Schriber favors, the focus on the latter numbers that lead him to suggest, “This kid is ready to make the next jump.”

Indeed, Renner’s charge into the PGA Tour spotlight Sunday – he was a Jimmy Walker bogey at 18 away from getting into a three-way playoff – had folks rushing to the media guide. “Who is this kid?” could be heard from Cannery Row to Ocean Avenue in Carmel and ports beyond, because nothing on Renner’s pro resume had hinted at this sort of thing.

Ah, but everything in his makeup did, so as Renner stood in the cold, damp wind behind the 18th green – waiting to see if he’d be in a playoff or fall one shy – there was a chance to recall the words he had spoken just two days earlier. Having backed up a 65 at Monterey Peninsula with a 73 at Pebble Beach, Renner was a surprise name near the top of the leaderboard, but given the chance to bemoan the lack of playing opportunities for those like him off of the Web.com Tour priority list, he took ownership of his predicament.

“If you don’t play well, you’re going to go down the totem pole,” Renner said. “You play well, you move right up it. That’s just the way it is. You’ve got to play well early.”

And Renner clearly hadn’t, as missed-cuts in his first four tournaments of 2013-14 could attest. He could have offered excuses, but it’s not Renner’s style. Instead, he embraced the situation that he had created. He almost had to play well,” Schriber said, or “he wouldn’t have been playing much the next few months.”

• See all of senior writer Jim McCabe's pro-tour notes for the week right here.

Renner conceded after Round 2 that he knew what was on the line, saying, “A lot of people know that this is the week guys like me have to play well.”

When Renner held serve in brutal conditions Saturday at Spyglass Hill, an even-par 72, then closed with a sterling 67 at Pebble Beach, he was in position to possibly get into a playoff. That Walker held on for his third Tour victory stole the headlines; that Renner secured a share of second with Dustin Johnson, a massive check, and all but assured himself of great playing opportunities was an intriguing subplot.

Surprise story? To many, yes, but not to Schriber. “He has kick-ass talent,” said the veteran swing coach who began working with Renner, 30, a year ago.

Good enough coming out of high school in Massachusetts to warrant a scholarship offer to the University of Oklahoma, Renner never felt comfortable on such a big stage and wound up at Johnson & Wales in North Miami, where a friendly connection from New England – Dave Adamonis Sr. – had put together a nice program.

Renner graduated in 2007 and over the next two summers he nearly made a clean sweep of the New England opens, winning the Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island and Maine titles. While he fared decently with the mini-tour stuff, getting through PGA Tour Q-School proved to be another matter. It wasn’t until he was 27 that he made it onto the PGA Tour, and while there were a few highlights, mostly there were bumps. Then came the death of his hero and biggest fan, his father John “Buck” Renner, in August 2012, and it’s safe to say that Renner’s focus took a hit.

In nine tournaments after the death of his father, Renner made just two cuts, and he carried some of the troubles into 2013. Enter Schriber, whom Renner had known but hadn’t worked with.

Schriber opened Renner’s eyes, then challenged him with what the instructor said was the truth. “He was lazy. I don’t sugar-coat it. Right or wrong, I say what feel,” Schriber said.

“Jim’s an incredible talent. He wasn’t a project like some guys. Jim was simple. We introduced him to Athletes’ Performance and showed him how better nutrition, better fitness and better mobility would help him. There’s not much athletically that he couldn’t do; I just think golf was easy for him.”

Clearly, Renner didn’t mind Schriber’s bluntness. It ignited a sense of honesty within himself, and Renner knew deep down that he had better talent than his results had shown: 59th on the Web.com Tour money list in 2012 and 27th last year. Coming into this PGA Tour season on the strength of a 44th-place finish on the Web.com Tour priority list was nothing he took great pride in, so Renner worked with Schriber to improve different parts of his game.

The first order of business? The gentle left-to-right shot, the fade.

“It opens things up for you. You manage a golf course better, and you won’t short-side yourself as much,” Schriber said. “He can hit it – they can all hit it – but Jim would never hit it when I watched him. He had zero confidence in it.”

That Renner has worked to a point where he is confident enough to call upon the fade was demonstrated by his chase for victory at Pebble Beach. That he birdied the 15th, made solid pars at 16 and 17, then calmly birdied the 18th with the pressure on demonstrated that he had in some ways passed another litmus test thrown his way by Schriber.

Again, the man doesn’t sugar-coat it, so one day Schriber decided to “test the waters,” and he said to Renner, “Will you be able to play near the front, to contend, or are you going to be (afraid)?”

Before that day, Schriber’s assessment was simple. “Jim’s a little too nice and definitely a little lazy,” he said, “but after I said that to him, his response convinced me that this kid cares a lot more than people think.”

In the closing holes Sunday, Renner embraced where he was – in the hunt and at arguably the most iconic course in the country. He had changed all the shafts in his irons and woods a week earlier, and for added comfort, Renner had asked a friend to ship to him the Piretti putter that he favored, but inexplicably took out of the bag. Mostly, though, he took Schriber’s challenge to heart and welcomed the pressure of the moment.

“In all honesty,” Renner said, “I hadn’t played that great (this year), so I was enjoying playing good golf, hitting it where I wanted to, and doing what I wanted.”

To a point, that is, because he wanted to win, and that didn’t happen. Yet, Renner stood with his mother, Jane, and his aunt, Ellen Renner, and no doubt he thought of his father, who had come to watch his son play at the 2011 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

He had come close. Even better, he expects to go even further.

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