Ryder rookie Overton finds normalcy at home
You have heard about the kid who realized his childhood dream, made it in pro sports, parlayed his riches into all the expensive toys, bought the pretentious home in a glitzy part of the world, and forgot who he was and from where he came? Well, this is the other kid’s story . . .
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Several blocks into his casual role of tour guide, Jeff Overton realized his gaffe along College Avenue. “I should have let him in, shouldn’t I?”
In other parts of the country, ignoring a driver’s bid to enter the flow hardly would register. But here in the shadows of State U, where people still wait at crosswalks for the light to turn, Overton understood his action worked against the very fabric of what keeps him here.
“This is home,” Overton said. “Everything I need is right here. I can be a normal person.”
Normal does not describe, however, Overton’s ascension in golf. It is a success story rooted not in meteoric AJGA success but rather a willingness to work until the last drop of sunlight is squeezed from the sky.
Bob Walther remembers.
“My wife and I went out to dinner and as we passed one of the public golf courses he played at, we looked over and there was Jeff,” Walther said. “It was almost dark, and Jeff was the only one left.
“I said to my wife, ‘I have no idea how far the young man will go with golf, but he could very well land on the PGA Tour.’ ”
That was some crystal ball, Mr. Walther, because Overton’s five-year ride on the PGA Tour is about to take its wildest turn.
Into the Ryder Cup.
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The first player to qualify for a U.S. Ryder Cup team without virtue of a win? It fits Overton’s storyline.
Here’s a young man who decided the summer going into ninth grade at Evansville’s North High School that he’d try the golf team.
“People told me if I wanted Jeff to play high school golf that I should send him to a different school,” Ron Overton said. “But we figured if you want to be the best, why not try and beat the best.”
Only first, how about a little introduction to the game for his son?
“I wanted something more than a golf pro,” Ron said. “I wanted someone to be a mentor to Jeff.”
Walther, 63, who had been taught the game by 1944 PGA Championship winner Bob Hamilton and ran a practice range in Evansville, said he’d do it, and against long odds, Overton made North’s powerhouse golf team as a freshman, was second in the state as a sophomore and played No. 1 for a state championship team that went 202-0 when he was a junior.
“We all worked hard,” Mike Birkenfeld said. “But (Jeff) worked his ass off.”
A childhood friend who became a high school and college teammate, Birkenfeld spent countless summer days alongside Overton as they challenged themselves with silly up-and-down games at Fendrich Golf Course, a blue-collar muni. Often, these would turn into team games for money the boys did not have; what they had was Overton’s nerve.
“It’s how he got the name ‘Wonder Boy,’ ” Birkenfeld said.
It did not come from pedigree, however. His appearance at a junior tournament was proof he didn’t.
“He was wearing one of those French berets on backward,” Birkenfeld said. “He had on shorts with high white tube socks, so it looked like he had on knickers.”
Sitting over a plate of chocolate-chip pancakes at his favorite breakfast place in Bloomington, the Runcible Spoon, Overton laughed as Birkenfeld – an assistant pro at Edgewood Valley CC outside of Chicago who has returned to town to visit his friend – told the story.
“Hey, I didn’t know . . . ,” Overton said.
“We couldn’t take him seriously,” Birkenfeld said. “ ‘Look at this clown,’ we said. Then he went out and beat our butts.”
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Glorious warm summer weather enveloped Bloomington in mid-August, perfect for Overton’s quiet days of relaxation where he feels most comfortable.
Though he had finished 71st at the PGA Championship Overton, 27, had secured an automatic berth into the Ryder Cup, a significant accomplishment that would be celebrated in a style befitting his personality. He and girlfriend, Christina Zimmer, hosted a cookout at his condo, Birkenfeld having come in from Chicago to join friends from Bloomington CC and elsewhere in town.
Simple, cozy and as uncontrived as it gets.
“Midwest people see things at face value,” Overton said. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice that my achievements are recognized; that’s cool. But at the same time, you can be normal. People know you because they’re your friends.”
Just as he arrived with very little fanfare on the high school golf scene, Overton settled on Indiana University after a recruiting process that was fairly quiet – for a reason.
“No one really recruited me,” Overton said, laughing.
Ah, he’s an “IU” sort of kid, and from fall 2001 to spring 2005, when he graduated, Overton became so enamored with Bloomington that he still calls it home. Tickets to IU football and basketball games are his pride and joy.
“We should live somewhere warmer, but we choose to live here because it’s just a cool place,” said Craig Bowden, a PGA Tour journeyman from Bloomington who has become one of Overton’s many fans in town.
In a prominent spot behind the bar at the Malibu Grill on North Walnut Street, a picture of Overton and friends hangs on the wall. Stop in at Yogi’s Grill and Bar on East 10th Street or Nick’s English Hut on East Kirkwood or hang out at his condo deck and you’re bound to run into any of the long list of Bloomingtonites who have chosen to make the trip overseas to support Overton and the U.S. in the Ryder Cup.
There are at least 20 going, maybe 30. Overton has lost count, but he knows Mike Mayer is a definite.
“He has the capability to do something very, very special,” said the longtime IU golf coach who still sees his former player on a regular basis and takes pride in his career path.
A winning member of the Palmer Cup and Walker Cup teams in 2005, Overton was T-13 at PGA Tour Q-School that fall and hasn’t looked back. The success has come steadily across just 132 PGA Tour tournaments – four runner-up finishes, 17 top 10s, 30 top 20s – but Overton doesn’t deny a sense of frustration as chances at victory have slipped away.
None was more painful than The Greenbrier Classic, where Overton led by three after 54 holes, only to see Stuart Appleby shoot 59 to come from seven back and win.
Clearly frustrated, Overton tossed a visor at one point and looked uncomfortable.
“He’s always been fidgety,” Mayer said. “That’s Jeff. But he’s learning to use it better and better to his benefit.”
The close calls, insist his friends, will make him only better.
“There are times when he could have won, but when he hasn’t, it’s not because he lost. It’s because someone with a hotter hand beat him,” said John “Spider” Miller, the two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champ and Bloomington CC colleague who has befriended Overton and could be called a mentor on par with Walther and Mayer.
Miller introduced Overton to Craig Harmon, who provides swing advice. And it is Miller who some time this winter will accompany Overton to Florida, where he will spend a few days in the presence of Arnold Palmer.
“I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of good players, and Jeff’s got it,” Miller said. “But Jeff’s challenge will be to manage his success. Arnold Palmer is the best in the world at it, so why not learn from the best?”
Harmon watched The Greenbrier heartache and measured the positives.
“He wants to win, and he’s not afraid to try and win,” Harmon said.
Few have been in position to do so the past year or so more than Overton, but as a sultry summer day seemingly stands still, talk out on the deck shifts from golf to Zimmer. As a mezzo-soprano graduate student at IU’s Jacobs School of Music, she has a passion for opera, and Overton is quick to acknow-ledge the dynamics involved here.
“Golf and opera,” he said. “There’s a whole lot of nothing going on there.”
Among friends, the laughter filled the warm air.