J.J. Jakovac: A Return to Amateur Golf
April 2, 2012
by Spencer Sorensen
Twelve years ago, 17 year-old J.J. Jakovac arrived at Spyglass Hill GC on a spring morning to play the famed course for the first time. The Vintage High School senior from Napa had qualified to play in the 2000 NCGA Public Links and was excited to play such a well-renowned course. He teed off in a heavy dense fog, not knowing what lied ahead, but by day’s end he had posted a respectable 75 in less than ideal conditions to stay in contention for the championship. The next morning after playing the first three holes with minimal fog around him, he realized how fortunate he was to get through Spyglass’s opening four holes rather unscathed the day before. “I was looking around on the fourth tee, and I noticed all the ice plant that surrounds holes two, three and four,” said Jakovac, “and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this has to be the most visually intimidating stretch of holes I have ever played.” Luckily, that revelation came to him primarily after conquering the seaside opening holes twice through. His solid play continued that second day as he posted a 1-over 73 final round for a 148 total, good enough to win the 36-hole event.
“That was the first big tournament I had ever won,” he recalled in amazement. And it wouldn’t be his last. Over the next several years Jakovac would reach new heights as an amateur and lows as a professional. Now at 29, Jakovac has one foot in the professional game (as a PGA Tour caddy) and another in the amateur game. As the NCGA Public Links kicks off its 2012 championship season this morning, Jakovac will kick off his second amateur career.
Shortly after winning the 2000 NCGA Public Links, Jakovac’s game kept getting better and better. He went on to play golf that fall at Chico State, an unheralded NCAA Division II program at the time that hadn’t seen much success since the 1970s. There his game thrived. In 2001-02 Jakovac won the NCAA Division II individual national title as sophomore. His junior year (2002-03), while he failed to defend his title from the previous year, he led his team to a fifth place finish at NCAA championships, the first time Chico State had played in the event in 26 years. Jakovac’s senior year (2003-04) he nearly did it all as he went on to claim his second individual national title and led his team to a second place finish, its best year since Chico State’s 1965-66 national championship team. What’s more, after winning a second individual national title and taking his team to the brink of its own, Jakovac was selected to the Palmer Cup team in the summer of 2004—a competition that features the best collegiate players from the United States and Europe battling one another—and played with future PGA Tour players Matt Every, Billy Hurley, Ryan Moore and Chris Stroud.
The sky seemed like the limit for Jakovac. After competing on the Palmer Cup team and playing in the U.S. Amateur at Winged Foot, he took the next natural step in his career and turned professional. In his pro debut at the Pebble Beach Invitational in November 2004, all signs pointed that he’d made the right decision. After the first round of the event Jakovac found himself tied for the lead after shooting a 66, and on Sunday he was in the penultimate group. Despite not going on to win the event he felt good about the decision. However, after not making it through all the Q-School stages to earn a PGA Tour card in late 2004, he found himself spending 2005 competing primarily on the Hooters Tour.
After an unspectacular year in 2005, the two and a half years (2006-2008) that followed were a struggle both financially and mentally. Jakovac bounced around on other mini tours with obscure names: Gateway, Cleveland Golden State, Pepsi and Spanos. Burnt out on trying to make a living playing golf, the soon-to-be 26 year-old needed a break from competitive golf by May 2008. Strangely enough his break from competitive golf only turned out to be from a playing standpoint. That’s because Matt Bettencourt, a Nationwide Tour player at the time, approached Jakovac to caddy for him. Bettencourt and Jakovac had developed a friendship through playing NCGA tournaments back in the early 2000s when Bettencourt earned back-to-back NCGA Player of the Year’s in 2001 and 2002. Seeing no harm in it Jakovac agreed and Bettencourt’s game took off. Bettencourt finished 2008 No. 1 on the Nationwide Tour money list, thanks in part to four top-five finishes and two victories all in the final six events of the season.
“Initially, when I agreed to caddy for Matt, I was doing it just because I was sick of golf; [I was] sick of the grind of it and not playing well,” said Jakovac. Still, in the second half of 2008, Jakovac hadn’t given up on his own game completely. Traveling to Nationwide Tour locales week to week, he would try to Monday qualify for his own spot in the field. In mid-September, Jakovac would play in the Monday qualifier for the Oregon Classic and earn a spot in the field. After two solid days of golf Jakovac posted a score of 2-under par 142. The cut came at 141. Missing the cut didn’t feel good and what made matters worse—financially at least—Bettencourt who he’d been caddying most weeks for the past four months went on to play exceptional golf. Bettencourt shot a 72-hole score of 19-under to win his first Nationwide Tour Event and earn $90,000.”Yeah that tournament cost me about $10,000 that week,” said Jakovac referring to the money he would have made caddying instead of playing. Little did he know at the time the Oregon Classic would be the last professional tournament he ever competed in.
For the rest of 2008 Jakovac concentrated on his job as Bettencourt’s caddy and a little less than two months later, Bettencourt captured the Nationwide Tour Championship to claim the top spot on the money list. With a full-time exemption to play on the PGA Tour for 2009, Jakovac decided to tote Bettencourt’s bag around some more. What began as a break from golf started looking more like a possible profession, as Jakovac pointed out “Matt did so well by making it to PGA Tour that when I went out there with him, I began liking it [more and more].”
By June 2009 though, Bettencourt and Jakovac weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on things and the two went their separate ways. Having now caddied for over a year now and not keeping up on his own game enough to stay competitive professionally, Jakovac looked for another caddying opportunity. In July, he landed with PGA Tour player Peter Tomasulo, a Southern California native who played collegiately at the University of California-Berkley, while Jakovac was at Chico State. The new partnership seemed like a great fit. Despite several missed cuts as 2009 winded down, which led Tomasulo playing on the Nationwide Tour in 2010, a win at Ford Wayne Gretzky Classic in July 2010 gave the two another crack at the PGA Tour. Similar to 2009 though, 2011 proved to be a struggle as Tomasulo only made five cuts in 12 starts from January to May at which time he shut it down for the year because of an injury. By that time Jakovac had to start looking for work again while his boss healed. He landed a couple of gigs caddying for Zack Miller for seven events and John Merrick for two and rejoined Tomasulo for the start of 2012, which lasted one start, when injury struck again this January at the Farmer’s Insurance Open in San Diego.
Coincidentally, at about the same time PGA Tour player Ryan Moore was looking for a new caddy. Moore, who you may recall was on the Palmer Cup team the same year as Jakovac. In fact they happened to be roommates on their trip to Ireland, where the European team featuring future Ryder Cup player Francesco Molinari beat the U.S. 14 ½ to 9 ½. Landing a full-time job with Moore was quite a coup, considering he’s in his eighth season on Tour and a former PGA Tour winner. “It’s pretty special, just a couple weeks ago I was [caddying] in the one of the final five groups at the Northern Trust Open on Sunday,” he said.
Besides the change in bosses this winter, Jakovac also gained his amateur status back. Knowing little about the process he filled out the necessary paperwork and was reinstated by the USGA basically immediately. The reason for the quick turnaround was because the last professional tournament he played in was more than three years ago (the 2008 Oregon Classic).
Not having played in a tournament for such a long time, Jakovac doesn’t know what his expectations should be for the NCGA Public Links. But as anyone who has played the game competitively, he’s aiming to get back in the winner’s circle. “I still feel like I play golf at a pretty high level,” he said. “I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t have the chance to go out there and win. That’s my goal.”
Amateur golf is something Jakovac hopes to add to his life on a more regular basis. He plans to qualify and compete in future NCGA championships later this year, but his career as a caddy takes first priority. While his own playing career never panned out the Napa native is content with his life and plans to be caddying a long time.
Explains Jakovac, “I enjoy it, as long as there is an opportunity, I’d love for it to continue.”
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