The new golf season begins this week with the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Kapalua, Hawaii. Canadian professional James Lepp isn’t there, of course, since he doesn’t play the PGA Tour. In fact, the only status the 29-year-old Abbotsford, B.C. pro has is as a veteran on PGA Tour Canada, formerly the Canadian Tour. Still, I’ll be following him this year - on Twitter and on the course - with as much or more more interest than just about any other golfer.
Lepp, as many folks know, finished second in the Big Break Greenbrier that just concluded. Well, the filming concluded last June, but the Golf Channel series didn’t end until a couple of weeks ago. Lepp was three-up with five holes to go in the last show, which was real golf in the sense that it was a match. He lost on the final hole to former University of South Carolina golfer and multiple mini-tour winner Mark Silvers, who went five-under the last five holes.
Lepp was his usual candid self when we chatted the first evening of the New Year. He said that, sure, his play on Big Break helped his confidence, but the total amount of golf he played during the series amounted to very little. That one last match was the only full round. The confidence he gained came at least as much from what he did on the range as during the actual competition.
“The filming was over two weeks, and the equivalent of about two rounds,” Lepp said. “But I felt good on the range, I was feeling great, really. People don’t see that on the show. People were saying on Twitter, ‘Hey, look at Lepp and how good he’s hitting it.’ But I have to look at it as a whole.”
The confidence he gained has helped Lepp, the founder of the shoe company Kikkor, decide to play competitively this year. The guy can play, that’s for sure. He won the B.C. Amateur from 2002-2005, and in 2005 while attending the University of Washington became the first Canadian to win the NCAA Division 1 championship. He also won the Canadian Tour’s Greater Vancouver Classic in 2003 when he was an amateur, and repeated in 2007, the year after he turned professional.
As a pro, however, Lepp eventually became disenchanted with the game. Lepp is an intensely creative young man, and Kikkor is evidence of that. It doesn’t always help in tournament golf to be deeply imaginative and creative, especially in today’s one-dimensional bomb and gouge game. The tee it high and let it fly golfer often prevails over the golfer who sees and feels too much during a round.
“My problem was how aware I was of my game,” Lepp said. “I’m a feel player and I always will be. But maybe I did too much on the course. I was always trying to find little tricks, almost like a drug addict looking for the next thing. It would last one hole, and then I’d say, okay, let’s try this now. It was all about instant gratification out there.”
Lepp also found that the more he practiced, the worse he played. He started to lose interest in the game. The passion he once felt for it, and which drove him to such success as an amateur especially, waned. He lost interest, and as 2008 wore on he stopped entering Canadian Tour events.
“Deep down I love golf, but it wasn’t loving me back,” Lepp said. That’s the truth.
Lepp had started suffering from the yips, and not only on or around the greens. The infection spread throughout his bag. He once described the effect as “devastating” to his game. His mind ran roughshod over his swing. The feel that helped him create shots that worked was so strong that he felt too much. His mind raced. His game came apart, a few shots a round, enough over the course of a tournament to shred his scores and self-confidence. And so he left competitive golf by the end of the 2008 season. He was done.
But, being creative, he did come up with an approach to some of his problems. He developed what has become known as his “saucer” shot, where he chips and pitches with his hands apart, almost seeming to scoop the ball. But it’s not a scoop, and the shot is legal. He calls it a “saucer pass.” Lepp sets his club 18-inches behind the ball and slides the face through the ball. He used the shot with great success during Big Break Greenbrier. The saucer pass has brought him a lot of attention, and, as he said, it hasn’t hurt Kikkor.
“When people think of the saucer pass, they also think of Kikkor,” Lepp said.
Lepp expects to employ the saucer pass in PGA Tour Canada events later this year. He figures his “veteran” status along with his past champion status will get him into most of the tournaments. As for the next five months until the PGA Tour Canada season begins, Lepp views them as “opportunities to work on my game and get it in the best shape possible.”
A few years have passed since Lepp competed regularly as a tour pro. He said he’s gained perspective, and while he did think he let down many people who expected so much from him, given his success as an amateur, “the person I let down the most is myself. I expected a lot.”
When I was a kid, I watched the ABC series Naked City. The police drama set in New York City ran from 1958-1963, and was filmed on location in the city. The closing line spoken after every show was “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”
There are as many stories in planet golf as there are players. James Lepp’s story has been, is, and will continue to be, one of them. His story is worth following.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein