Jason Kokrak has played on the PGA Tour, on and off, since 2012. But until around a year ago, even a serious golf fan could be forgiven for not knowing who he was. Kokrak spent most of his career well outside the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking––good enough to be one of the best players in the world, certainly, but a long way from the sport’s top tier. He’d won a few times on the sport’s lower-level tours but had never lifted a trophy on the PGA Tour.
All of that has changed in recent months. The 36-year-old Ohioan won his first PGA Tour event last October, the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek, and followed it up by winning the Charles Schwab Challenge in Texas at the end of May. He has been one of the best players in the world since golf resumed after its pandemic pause, and he’s risen all the way to No. 24 in the global rankings. Last week, we caught up with Kokrak during a press tour for his Father’s Day sweepstakes with Eagle Rare Bourbon and Buffalo Trace Distillery. We talked about improving with age, how he figured out putting, what pro golfers like to drink, and more.
Men’s Journal: Not a lot of golfers become top-25 players in their mid-30s. How did you find this level of play later in your career?
Jason Kokrak: Well, I’ve always been a slow learner at every level of the game. At the beginning of high school I was decent, and then by senior year I was pretty good, winning tournaments pretty regularly. Same thing in college: I’d won a few times, but nothing too crazy. When I turned pro, I was OK at first. I think I lacked confidence. Then I started winning an event here, an event there, and once I got that feeling of a little bit of confidence and belonging, I took it to a new level. Once I figure it out and learn how to win, the floodgates open, and I tend to play a lot better when I feel more comfortable.
At the pro level, all these guys are good ball-strikers. All these guys are good putters, and good pitchers of the golf ball. In the game of golf, a big chunk of playing well is confidence.
Did you ever consider quitting professional golf?
Yeah, absolutely. My wife and a couple other people know this very well. We were living in Charlotte. I was starting to go to job interviews and look down the road of getting a real job instead of playing golf for a living. I just got discouraged after a couple years on the mini-tours of not playing great but not playing badly, and I didn’t want to put the financial burden on myself with a loan or asking other people to back me. I was down to my last tournament, my last entry fee, rent—everything was culminating with this last event.
I went to a job interview; I can’t even remember who it was with. Halfway through the interview, I looked up and said, “Sir, I hate to tell you this, but this just is not for me. I’m not gonna do this.” I went home, and that was the kick in the butt I needed to start grinding to get to where I’m at today. I didn’t win that next tournament, but I played very well. I made some cash. I was like, “This is what I need to do. I just need to work harder.”
Golf is a game that gives you nothing. You have to work for everything you have in this game. That’s what I’ve done over the last couple years. Ever since the middle of college, I took one facet of the game every year and said, “All right, I need to take this to the next level or get a little better at this.”
If you’re playing well and not winning, you’re still playing well. The wins will come. If you’d told me I’d have a 10-year career without a win, I would’ve said, “sign me up.” I’m just happy to call myself a two-time winner now.
Since Phil Mickelson won the PGA Championship, there’s been a lot of discussion about what it takes for older players to keep up with these athletic 20-somethings who are driving the hell out of the ball off the tee. What’s your training regimen? How have you managed to hang with that group?
I think it helps lifting my very large 2- and 4-year-old children up and down all day and holding them. And doing yard work. The week before the PGA Championship, I helped my cousin spread some mulch. I’ve never been one to shy away from a little bit of manual labor; I used to cut my own grass.
I like to work out, but I don’t like the way my game feels when I do work out. I’m sore. My short game struggles with it. I do try to eat a little bit better, as of the last year or two. Last year I dropped about 30 pounds. I’ve put a few pounds back on, but eating healthier and drinking enough water goes a long way toward playing well.
Everybody’s a little bit different. Phil’s been drinking his coffee and doing his thing, and that seems to be working for him. Tiger used to spend all day at the golf course, working out in the morning, working out in the afternoon. It was just 24/7 golf. If I did that, I’d get burned out very, very quickly. You learn what works for you and how your game feels the best. I’d love to have a six pack and look like a model, but I’m just not that type of guy.
Many of us go our entire lives without figuring out how to putt. Going by strokes gained statistics, you’re now one of the best putters in the world this year. How’d you do it? Was it just a matter of moving to a longer putter, or have you discovered a secret to this incredibly difficult part of golf?
I always say when my peers are struggling with putting: “Well, you need a D-Rob.” I’ve got a D-Rob, and he reads the greens. [Note: Kokrak’s caddy is David Robinson, a former pro himself.] I don’t consider myself a bad green reader, but there are many intricacies of green-reading: Bermuda greens as opposed to bent grass, and bent as opposed to poe. There’s a lot that goes into it. I wouldn’t say that I’ve found the secret to putting, but I’ve found a way that works for me. I’ve always had a really good stroke, it just felt a little inconsistent. I was more of a streaky putter before. I think just the overall practice and having a guy like David Robinson keeping an eye on alignment, path, even grip pressure. He can tell when my grip is too firm.
When we lengthened the putter to 36, I was able to get both of my hands fully on the putter grip. That seemed to give me more stability in my stroke. I see that a lot, but there’s no one right way to putt. Tiger Woods was an unbelievable putter, but most people don’t know he opens the putter and closes the putter more than most other great putters in the game. There are just so many things that go into putting. You’ve gotta find what works for you, what you’re comfortable with, and also what you like to look down at. If you look down at a putter and you’re not comfortable looking at it, it’s not gonna work.
You’re working with Eagle Rare Bourbon and Buffalo Trace Distillery on a sweepstakes for Father’s Day weekend. What’s on offer?
It’s been an amazing partnership. I especially like the Eagle Rare ethos of reaching higher; it’s an incredible brand for me to be a partner with.
With the U.S. Open coming up, as well as Father’s Day, we’re doing a giveaway: an all-expenses paid trip for two days. You stay in the Stag Lodge at Buffalo Trace, and it’ll be fully stocked with Eagle Rare. You get a round of golf at Keene Trace, which is a PGA Tour venue, and a private distillery tour. Entries will be accepted until 11:59 p.m. (EDT) on June 20. I can’t wait to see who wins this thing, it’s an incredible giveaway.
What do you look for in a whiskey?
I like a rye, but I’ve been more into wheated bourbons as of late. A little bit of a higher alcohol content: I would say 100 to 115 proof would be my ideal range. I like the complexity of the different flavors, and it’s fun to do tastings with other people who appreciate that. My brother got me into the bourbon craze, and now I’ve got an incredible collection.
As far as drinking it, I like it neat. When it’s warm outside, I like it on the rocks, maybe with the occasional mixer. If I’m drinking something like the Eagle Rare 17, I’d just put it in a glass and enjoy. I like to have two or three different pours a night, just one-ounce pours to give myself some different flavor profiles.
You’ve probably sat around in clubhouses and restaurants with your fellow touring pros. What do they drink?
I think the older generation was more into spirits—mixed cocktails, vodka or bourbon or whiskey or whatever it may be. The younger generation, my age into the 50-year-old-range, I think it’s more wine. I was big into wine for a couple years, along with other tour pros. Splitting a bottle of wine at dinner, that kind of thing.
But the youngest generation, they don’t partake in the spirits as much. I think they’re more focused on golf all the time. That’s not how I came up in the game. I think you have to have a little bit of fun. I always tell the guys at the pro-ams, “If you can’t come out here and have a little bit of fun, then don’t do it.”
Go out and have fun with your fellow tour pros, split a few glasses of bourbon or a few glasses of wine, shoot the shit, and enjoy what we’ve all been doing. You have to enjoy it and make the most of it.
If you could spend an hour sipping bourbon with one tour pro, who would you pick?
I would say my buddy Pat Perez. I’ve gotten him into it—I think he’s been bit by the bourbon bug.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.