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Jim Rutledge
Jim Rutledge

Rubenstein: Rutledge navigates a difficult route back Add to ...

The skinny on Jim Rutledge has been that his swing and attitude are so good that he should have played the PGA Tour for years, and won on it. But the 54-year-old who lives in Victoria, B.C. played the PGA Tour only one year, in 2007, when he didn’t earn enough to retain his exempt status for the next season. He had qualified for the 2007 PGA Tour by finishing 14th on the 2006 Nationwide (now Web.com) Tour. That year Rutledge won the New Zealand PGA Championship, a tournament on the Nationwide schedule.

The ever-confident and gracious Rut, as his friends know him, wasn’t all that concerned about not retaining his PGA Tour card. Down the road a short piece, he competed as much as he could on the Champions Tour after turning 50 in August 2009, and eventually won fully exempt status for the 2012 season by tying for second in the qualifying school tournament. Only five golfers win that status via the Champions Tour’s qualifying school.

Rutledge won $270,434 in 2012 to finish 44th on the money list. Only the top 30 in the truly survival of the fittest Champions Tour retain their fully exempt status for the next year. Rutledge returned to qualifying school and tied for fourth to get himself exempt for the 2013 season. He won $271,381, but that was good for only 55th position on the money list.

And so it was back to qualifying school last week in Scottsdale, Ariz. Rutledge had his wife Jill on the bag, as he always does. When I spoke with him Tuesday from his home in Victoria, he never said “I” while speaking of his golf game or life on tour. It was always “we.” Jill lost her mother Janis Smith last August when a stomach virus called a norovirus broke out in a local care facility. Her death was unexpected, and hit Jill and her husband hard.

Rutledge played the Mr. Lube PGA Seniors Championship of Canada a week later and won it in a playoff over his fellow Canadian and Champions Tour player Rod Spittle. Here’s an interview with him after he won. He’d also won the tournament in 2010 and 2012. Still, his win didn’t mean the rest of the year on the Champions Tour would be easy.

“I’d busted my driver,” Rutledge said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon from his home, “and it took me three months working with Titleist to narrow it down to where I’d start to drive it better. I’d been playing out of the rough and trees for three months. I was trying to manoeuver the club when the club wasn’t for me.”

Rutledge had gotten off to a strong start for the year before breaking his driver, stalling, and going into reverse. He’d tied for eighth at the Toshiba Classic in March, shooting a nine-under par 62 the last round, for one thing. He’d shot seven-under 64 the last round of the Senior PGA Championship in May–the low round of the tournament–and tied for sixth.

In the end, though, Rutledge could finish no better than 55th on the money list. As he said, a player doesn’t get many opportunities at all the next season after finishing outside the top 50. The top 30 is the goal, but top 50 will get a player into some tournaments.

So it was that Rutledge was back at qualifying school last weekend. He started the last round in 13th place, a long way from the coveted top five placing he’d need. The weather was foul–cold and breezy, “just another winter’s day at home, so just go play,” he said.

Play he did. He made seven birdies to shoot five-under 65 and vault into a tie for second place at 15-under for the tournament.

“We just threw on our layers and went after it,” Rutledge said. “We knew four years ago when we got into this that thing that it’s cut and dried. I hadn’t played the PGA Tour (except for 2007) and the tour is designed for players who were out there a long time. That’s okay. We know we have a window.”

Rutledge and his wife went through that window the last day in Scottsdale as if it didn’t exist. Now he’s back home in Victoria, and, depending on the weather, will be out with his regular bunch of 15-20 pals every Monday and Friday teeing it up for fun and games at the very good Uplands club in Victoria. Rutledge always looks forward to the games with his buddies.

Come the New Year, he plans to head to the Titleist fitting centre and putting studio in Carlsbad, Calif. He expects to start his 2014 season in mid-January in Florida. Jill will again be at his side.

“She can’t walk outside the ropes,” Rutledge said. “Jill’s been in sports all her life. She’s gained the respect of the other players.”

So has Rutledge. When it comes to sweet swings, hardly anybody does it better. Rutledge epitomizes what the great Canadian amateur Marlene Stewart Streit has always emphasized: SRB, or smoothness, rhythm, and balance.

It wouldn’t be a surprise should Rutledge’s personal SRB translates into his first win on the Champions Tour. He has again navigated a difficult route, but he’ll be there for the 2014 season. Happy holidays, Rut, and good luck to you and Jill next year.

RELATED LINK: More blogs from Lorne Rubenstein

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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at lornerubenstein@me.com. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein

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