Writer’s note: Most of the primary interview for this column was conducted while watching Stephan Jaeger play the 524-yard, par-5 first hole on the Cypress nine at Country Club of Jackson.
First, Jaeger hit a 280-yard bullet of a drive into a significant wind, which left him 245 yards, over water, still into the wind, to the pin. So, Jaeger took out his 3-wood, took a healthy rip, and hit a shot that started 20 yards right of the target and then drew ever so perfectly back toward the pin. The shot narrowly missed going in for a deuce and left him a tap-in, 10-inch putt for eagle. Before and between shots, he was chatting with this reporter and with the kids he was playing with in the BankPlus junior pro-am. It was, shall we say, a most casual eagle.
And I know what many of your are thinking: “Stephan Jaeger, Stephan Jaeger . . . where have I heard that name?”
You probably heard it for the first time last July when the German-born Jaeger, who speaks perfect English, shot the first 58 in PGA tournament history at the PGA Web.com Tour’s Ellie Mae Classic in Hayward, Cal. That’s not a typo. Jaeger (pronounced Yae-ger) made 12 birdies and six pars en route to a 58. Amazing fact: His 58 included a three-putt par on a par-5 hole. It could just as easily have been 57.
“Mr. 58!” someone in the gallery shouted after Jaeger hit his first drive during tbe BankPlus Junior Pro-Am Wednesday.
“Yeah, that’s me. Mr. 58,” Jaeger said. “Only now it’s me and Jim Furyk.”
That’s right: Ten days after Jaeger shot his 58, Furyk famously shot his. Both did it on TPC courses, which tells you this much: Neither was a fluke.
“Magical,” Jaeger said, when asked to describe his. “It was just magical. I mean, there’s a reason why it’s only been done twice. It takes a lot of really good shots, a lot of luck, lot of good reads on the greens. You have to make about every putt you stand over. It was really magical.”
Fifty-eight is a score most pros have when they reach, oh, say, the 15th hole. Jaeger needed that many for the full 18 and he never holed a single shot from the fairway, as opposed to Furyk who holed a 135-yard shot early in his 58.
Jaeger shot his 58 during the first round of a 72-hole tournament. He followed that up with rounds of 65, 64 and 63 to win the tournament by a whopping seven shots. He finished 30-under par for the event, which would make one think they were playing on a pitch and putt course.
They weren’t. TPC Stonebrae, near San Francisco, measures 7,188 yards. Matt Atkins, who played one group ahead of Jaeger that day, said the course was “far from easy.”
“I shot 66 that same day but I played really, really well,” Atkins said. “Fifty-eight? That was unbelievable to me. I saw a lot of his shots land really close to the hole, and I started looking at the scoreboard and he kept going lower and lower. When I finished, I stayed around to watch him finish before I went to the scorer’s tent. That’s how impressive it was.”
Jaeger had a 15-foot, downhill putt for birdie on the last hole. He could have two-putted for 59.
“He hit it right in the back of the hole,” Atkins said. “It probably would have gone three feet by. He wasn’t playing it safe.”
Players such as Jaeger and Atkins give us a somewhat startling idea of the depth of talent in professional golf these days. Neither has yet made it to golf’s Major Leagues, the PGA Tour. The Buy.com Tour is more like Class AAA. But, to borrow from the PGA Tour’s old slogan, those guys at the Buy.com level are really good, too.
Both Jaeger and Atkins had to go through Monday qualifying at Deerfield to get into the Sanderson Farms Championship field. Jaeger made it with ease with a 64. Atkins shot 67 to squeeze in.
Both are shooting to win the championship, which would elevate them immediately to the PGA Tour and give them what amounts to a three-year exemption into PGA Tour events.
“That’s why I am here: to win,” Jaeger said. “I’m playing well. I feel good about it. But there’s a lot of guys here who feel good about it. It’s golf, and there’s a lot of great players here, so you never know.”
We do know this. If Jaeger plays four rounds here like he played back in July in the Bay Area, everybody else is playing for second place.
Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org.