2006: Jim Rutledge - Finding his focus

Jim Rutledge is Canadian like maple leafs and cheap meds. Quiet, friendly and unassuming, almost to a fault. After only five minutes with him you have to resist the urge to ask if he knows Bob from Winnipeg, and you realize that, above all else, Rutledge is honest.

Hold the Sodium Pentothal. No need for a polygraph. Rutledge wears his nearly three decades in professional golf like a soldier sports a chest full of medals. Triumphs and tragedies are etched into the lines of the weathered face with the easy smile. But if you really want to know why it took him so long to solve the PGA Tour mystery after a lifetime playing the game in far-flung locales from Manitoba to Manila, just ask.

“A lot of people say, ‘You should have been out here a long time ago,’ ” says Rutledge, who finished 14th on the Nationwide Tour money list to earn his first trip to the PGA Tour. “The truth is I was content, probably too content. Not enough hard knocks. I’ve heard it a lot. Too easy going. A lot of things roll off my back when I should get fired up.”

At 47, Rutledge will be the second oldest rookie in Tour history, one month shy of Allen Doyle, who turned pro when he was 46 after a lifetime of amateur competition. Rutledge, however, has been among the play-for-pay sort longer than half of this year’s Nationwide Tour graduating class has been alive.

He cashed his first check in 1978 and found a niche splitting his year between the Asian and Canadian tours. He won twice in 1995 and earned about $250,000, “It was enough to keep the bill collectors from knocking on the door,” he says.

And he admits that until last year he never really yearned for the greener fairways of the PGA Tour.

“Coming back to Q-School was just kind of a habit,” Rutledge says. “It was the time of year everybody went to Tour School, so I went to Tour School. I’d miss and go back to Asia.”

Surprising as it may be to find a North American touring pro with or without a PGA Tour card, it’s even more surprising to learn where Rutledge dug up the mental moxie to finally push himself into golf’s Big Leagues.

Languishing at the end of another lackadaisical season on the Nationwide Tour in 2005, Rutledge was at home in Victoria, British Columbia, when he stumbled upon a copy of “Fearless Golf,” by Dr. Gio Valiante.

The tome instantly resonated with Rutledge, who admits he had been easily distracted by things other than his game during rounds. In Valiante’s pages, Rutledge found focus and, more importantly, desire.

The results came quickly. He posted a solid finish at the ’05 Q-School, tied for 11th at the ’06 Nationwide season opener and broke through for his first victory on the secondary circuit at the New Zealand PGA in February.

With the victory Rutledge found confidence, albeit of the subdued, Canadian sort.

“I came out and fell in the back door in New Zealand. Nothing really happened on the last day and I’ve been riding that since,” Rutledge says.

That’s what passes for boastfulness in Rutledge’s world. Think more Chad Campbell than Chad Johnson. The man is missing a mean gene. It’s the byproduct of an easy-to-like personality and a perspective that comes with 47 years.

Perhaps Rutledge never became consumed with the PGA Tour dream because he allowed himself to be lulled into a simpler existence elsewhere, or maybe he understood there were things more important than the green patch inside the fairway ropes.

For Rutledge, the road to the PGA Tour is filled with the type of personal tragedy that often reminds us how inconsequential the business of golf can be. Five years ago, after providing his son a lifetime of support, Rutledge’s father, Grant, died. Shortly afterward, his wife and part-time caddie, Jill, and her father, Tom, were diagnosed with cancer.

“Golf didn’t mean anything at that time. But my wife kept me going. She told me to take Ryan (the couple’s teenage son) and go on the road,” says Rutledge, whose father-in-law died about 31⁄2 years ago. “We finally got through that stretch and Jill’s healthy now. We’ve started to enjoy golf again.”

Tempered by the often-indiscriminate vagaries of life and inspired by his quick start to the season, Rutledge became a new man in 2006. A range rat focused on a single goal – the PGA Tour.

“He’s got that carefree attitude you have to have on the golf course and that might hide (his) competitive side a little,” says David Hearn, a fellow Canadian 20 years Rutledge’s junior. “But he’s driven. I think he beat me in just about every chipping and putting contest we had this year. That shows his competitive side.”

The new, hungry Rutledge even surprised himself when he boldly refused to send in his Q-School application. For months, the blank form sat on a table next to a pile of bills and magazines adjacent his front door. It was an omnipresent reminder of what was at stake.

“It was there to remind us to keep hammering away,” Jill Rutledge says.

For the first time since 1997, instead of visiting Q-School the Rutledges will spend the first week of December in Barbados at the WGC-World Cup. Jill will caddie, Ryan will enjoy the sun and the beach and Jim will relish the chance to team with good friend Mike Weir. Most of all, Rutledge will embrace a reality that alluded him for decades.

“At times I think he did doubt his ability to (get to) the Tour,” Jill Rutledge says. “It was hard, but it always seemed like we’d barely keep our heads above water. Deep inside he knew he had the gift and now he believes it.”

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