ERIN, Wis. – It wasn’t a smooth start in America.
Stephan Jaegar, born and raised for most of his childhood in Germany, moved to the U.S. as a foreign exchange student his junior year in high school. He attended Baylor School, based in Chattanooga, Tenn., and joined the golf team, already armed with Harris English (a future two-time PGA Tour winner).
Teammates had difficulty understanding the newbie – he learned his new language in the Old English-style, which meant a far quicker-paced version of English than is prevalent in Chattanooga – and could confuse simple concepts. For instance, Jaeger often mixed up turkeys and turtles (no Stephan, those shelled creatures crawling along are not turkeys).
From the start, it appeared Jaeger’s transition might be a monumental project.
“The first thing he said to me was, ‘Is this yardage book in yards or meters?’ ” English said. “I was like, ‘Oh boy.’ ”
But Jaegar is a quick adaptor. The German fit in, would stay a second year to graduate and lead Baylor to its final two of six straight Division II TSSAA state titles.
He would go on to have a four-year career at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a tenure that included four wins and All-America honors his senior season. Jaeger embarked on a pro career thereafter, turning to the paid ranks in 2012.
Three years later, he made it to the Web.com Tour. In July 2016 came his breakout, a record-setting opening-round 58 at the Ellie Mae Classic on his way to a record-setting win.
This year, he started by missing four of his first seven cuts. He tinkered with the feel of his swing, working on it for months before seeing results.
“Finally, it kind of clicked a little bit for me,” Jaeger said.
Yeah, kind of. Jaeger has been on fire for the last month, winning two of three Web.com Tour events and moving through sectional qualifying to earn a spot in the U.S. Open for the second time in three years.
His strong run of play continued Thursday at Erin Hills, as Jaeger opened in 1-under 71 to put himself six off the lead and in a nice spot early at the Open.
But what’s behind Jaeger’s rise – which sees him winning in bundles and now atop the Web.com Tour money list?
It’s been there all along. Ben Rickett, a senior when Jaeger entered the Chattanooga squad, realized pretty quickly the kid the Mocs had picked up. Jaeger finished fifth and tied for fourth in his first two college starts.
English described Jaeger as a fearless player in high school, almost to the German’s detriment at times, and Jaeger sported a stunning confidence in his pro golfing dreams.
“He’s never questioned if he’ll be there,” Rickett said. “It’s when he’ll be there.”
Rickett, an Englishman, roomed with Jaeger for two years – his senior season and the year after when Rickett was a student assistant – and quickly came to understand his compatriot’s self-belief.
Rickett, now the director of the Dalton State golf program and head coach of the men’s team, recalled a time freshman year when the pair drove to nearby Chattanooga Country Club.
It was pouring rain outside, so Rickett decided to stay in the car while Jaeger practiced his putting. He waited and waited until Jaeger finished his session in horrible conditions … two-and-a-half hours later.
“I was like, ‘He’s got something I don’t,’ ” Rickett said.
Jaeger possesses another rare quality: A refreshing bluntness. The German was known to run his mouth at times while at Chattanooga and he could let his feelings be known with no words at all.
Jaeger wasn’t a big cleaner when he got to school, and his roommate was fed up – especially considering Rickett and him shared a bathroom.
So Rickett told Jaeger they were going to start having golf matches to determine cleaning duties. One of those times, at Council Fire Golf Club, Jaeger appeared he was going to win until Rickett fashioned a stunning cut (a shot he was notoriously inept at) 3-iron from 220 yards to 2 feet at the final hole to close in eagle and turn the match in his favor.
Jaeger was so mad at the loss, he didn’t speak to Rickett for a week.
“I think he’s over it now,” Rickett said, with a laugh.
When Jaeger’s hot steak ends is anyone’s guess, but he’s a name plenty of Web.com Tour foes – including Keith Mitchell, also a teammate from Jaeger’s Baylor School days – know is no joke.
Jaeger’s essentially locked up his 2017-18 PGA Tour card, which would mean his first foray onto the biggest circuit in golf. As for now, his swing’s in form. His misses are smaller, so he’s bullish on his game no matter the venue or tournament.
“It helps on any golf course, not just this week,” Jaeger said.
Spoken like a guy used to having no doubts.