Kok shares moment with idol Els at Valhalla

Johan Kok during a practice round early Wednesday morning at Valhalla for the PGA Championship.

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LOUISVILLE, Ky –– It was no way to treat a hero, yet Johan Kok wasn’t about to let his competitive fires back down. So when he birdied both the par-3 eighth and par-4 ninth in a nine-hole practice round, the young South African made his way in the pockets of four-time major winner Ernie Els.

“My mate,” Els said, shaking his head. “He clipped me pretty good.”

Kok was paired with Branden Grace in a nine-hole match against Els and Louis Oosthuizen, a foursome of South Africans who cajoled and trash-talked their way around Valhalla Golf Club’s front nine late Tuesday. Two down early, Grace and Kok got back into the match, then applied a press that they parlayed into some nice cash.

To make things even sweeter, Kok played another nine holes Wednesday morning with his idol. “I never thought I would get a chance to play, but when Ernie invites you in, you go in,” said Kok, who finished T-8 in the national club pro championship to earn his spot.

As if he needed even more thrills to add to his first PGA Championship experience, the club professional from Brentwood, Tenn., via Nelspruit, South Africa, placed third to Oosthuizen in a long-drive contest that took the length of Tuesday to complete. It was made official Wednesday morning, Oosthuizen winning with 340 yards, edging Jason Day (338) and Kok (337).

See bios of the club pros in the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla.

“After we beat them on the ninth hole (Tuesday), we went to the 10th hole and Louis ripped one,” Kok said. “He had a big smile when we got to the fairway and he said, ‘I beat you on this one.’ “

All in all, these warm-up days to the 69th PGA have been pure joy for Kok, who as a 12-year-old emigrated to the United States. He went to the IMG Academy, traveled the world while trying to make it in pro golf, then settled into a job as general manager with Davis Love Golf Management at Temple Hills CC in Franklin, Tenn. While he never knew Els in South Africa, he has gotten to know him over the years in America. And his paths have crossed many years with South Africans Richard Sterne, Charl Schwartzel, and Oosthuizen.

At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Kok covers a lot of real estate with his drives, so he wasn’t surprised that he finished third in the long-drive competition. But he’s also quite sure that he’s in the right line of work and doesn’t have aspirations to resume a chase of pro golf.

“I’m at my (long-hitting) gear most of the time, but these guys have a special gear they can turn on,” Kok said.

Kok played for Puggy Blackmon at the University of South Carolina and in his senior year was so confounded by putting that he decided to turn around and do it lefthanded. He’s been putting that way ever since. “I putt once in a while righthanded on the practice green, but I promised myself I would putt lefthanded in competition forever and so far I have.”

Els can testify that it works quite well, but still, The Big Easy didn’t hold it against his fellow South African. When their match was over, Kok posed with Els, Oosthuizen, and Grace for pictures and warm embraces. Kok’s wife, Dawn Davenport, a morning anchor on WKRN in Nashville (and a sideline reporter for ESPN), handled the camera duties, so he knew he would have mementos of his week at Valhalla GC.

Of course, it’s not over. Kok will get chances Thursday and Friday (he’ll be paired with Ben Martin and Chris Wood) to show he’s got enough game to make this a full week.

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