"Peak Performer" Defends Open, PGA Titles
By Jack Saylor
Not since the early 80's, when Buddy Whitten was the scourge of the state and won both the Michigan Open and PGA championships in 1983, has anyone swept both major titles for club pros as Jeff Roth did last summer.
The 41-year-old Flint Golf Club professional figures he altered the usual format by making a name nationally first, then winning the big ones in his own state. He credits learning to prepare himself for accomplishing both.
"I've kind of done things "bass-ackward," winning the National Club Pro, playing in three PGA Cup matches and three national PGAs - those kind of things first," Roth said.
"In a sense, I needed to win the state events because it was like I was hitting the home runs and triples, but I needed to touch second and first by winning the Michigan Open and PGA - I felt it just made my career complete."
It's a career that didn't seem to need much validation since Roth had advanced from state high school champion and state assistant pro's champion to victories in two Yamaha Classics (1987-88) when that event was played and considered a major in the Michigan section.
Roth also competed in three Buick Opens and four national PGAs, plus won the '93 National Club Pro while still revising his golf game.
Roth has long been considered one of the premier putters among state pros, a rating he resists.
"I've always considered myself a competent putter, but never felt the way some people think of me," he said.
"It's a nice compliment, but for me to do what I've done in the last seven or eight years, I could only have done by improving my swing and the rest of my game as I did around 1991 or '92.
To back up his putting theory, Roth told of a trip to the PGA Tour Qualifying school last fall.
"I didn't even make it to the finals," he said. "Everybody I watched was putting as well or better than me. And when I played in the Buick Open I checked it out and I was 10th in fairways hit for the week and 17th in greens hit, while I'm 68th or so in putting ... so how good a putter am I? It's all relevant."
Nevertheless, a lot of his Michigan peers would love to have Roth's stroke, but the veteran they call "J.R." was looking for something more.
"I've learned a lot about performing at your peak, how to get in that mode, psychologically," he said. "I took 1991-92 and re-worked my fundamentals.
"In 1993 and '94 I took a lot of time learning how to prepare better for events, within the framework of the time a club pro has available."
Says Roth: "It's not all about ball-striking, chipping and putting or practicing. It's about going to the golf course and shooting a number.
"Some guys go to a tournament to hit balls, get out the video, talk to the next guy on the range about golf swings and just be happy to be out of the pro shop.
"I'm happy to be away from the shop, too, but I'm there to do one thing and that's to try to shoot a number. I think I'm better at this preparation for thinking like that than I am at putting. I can't remember the last time I went to a tournament not feeling I'd given myself a good chance to win.
"That doesn't mean I'm going to win, but it means I feel I've given myself the best possible chance to do it."
Roth thinks the reputation he's accrued as a putter traces to his days as a junior. (He was the GAM's junior champion in 1973).
"I didn't have anywhere near the tee-to-green game I have now," he said. "I have sort of a self-taught swing with not much distance and power behind it and I missed a lot of greens during the course of a round.
"I just learned to get the ball up and down by necessity because of the way I played. I had some good tournaments at the right time and I think a few media people were there to see things and all of a sudden I developed this reputation."
Reputation or the real thing, Roth's twin victories in the Open and PGA were especially sweet. He has already won the Tournament of Champions twice (1995-96) and had come enticingly close in the Open and PGA a number of times.
"Now my goal obviously is to win multiple PGAs and Opens - what's left?" he asked.
"I went to the Tour Q-School last fall and played relatively decent, but not good enough. My heart wasn't really in it because basically I was just there to see if I could do it - it's another challenge."
Roth is happy with his golf situation now. "I love being a club pro," he said. "I had a lot of time to spend with my family last winter. My boys are into hockey so I did very little traveling or golf last winter, probably the first time in eight or nine years."
Now, it's summer and Michigan major tournaments are approaching, but Roth has no mountains to club or titles to prove, just "shoot a number."
"We have some outstanding putters in this section," Roth said. "It's a great section and competition is terrific ... that's what makes it such a wonderful section."
When J.R. shows up to defend hs titles in the Open at the Bear (June 28) and the PGA at Boyne Highlands (Aug. 16), he'll be counting on his preparation to give him a chance.
But his rivals can be sure Roth will probably still have that smooth putting stroke along, too.
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