Drew Kittleson in 2010 (FSU Athletics photo)
When it comes right down to it, Drew Kittleson
is playing the U.S. Amateur for the first time in eight years because of a bet.
“I love Pebble Beach and my friends were giving me a hard time that I was washed up and couldn’t go do it,” Kittleson said. So he proved them wrong.
Kittleson, 29, was runner-up to Danny Lee at the 2008 U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst No. 2. He was a sophomore at Florida State that year, and on the fast-track to a budding career on the PGA Tour. Ten years later, he’s a reinstated amateur with a family and a career (that doesn’t include golf) who realizes that you never really lose your competitive spirit once you’ve known this game at the highest level.
It’s ultimately what got him into another USGA event, this time as a much different man.
When the conversation first began, Kittleson’s buddies offered him two or three tries to qualify for the U.S. Amateur in what has the potential to be a storied comeback. Kittleson wanted to show them that he could get in on the first try.
“A lot of people who have, at some point in their life, played good golf think they can pull it off,” Kittleson said of reviving the kind of game – and confidence – it would take to make it into the nation’s amateur championship. “Sometimes physically it doesn’t pan out, but mentally you always think you can do it.”
So on July 16, Kittleson showed up on the first tee of a 36-hole qualifier at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah, went 11 under and took the last of two available spots in the U.S. Amateur. It would have created the best kind of bragging rights but for the fact that the first spot went to a 15-year-old (Preston Summerhays) who beat Kittleson by eight shots after rounds of 65-60 (that’s 19 under).
“A lot of people have given me a hard time for having a 15-year-old beat me by eight,” he said, laughing a little. “I would give my friends a hard time, too.”
This will be Kittleson's first U.S. Amateur start since 2010 at Chambers Bay.
Kittleson works as a sales manager for a family-owned kitchen and bathroom remodeling company. His last competitive round as a professional was at PGA Tour Qualifying School in 2013. It was the third consecutive time he had tried to qualify for the Tour.
In between those Q-School starts from 2011-13, Kittleson played a few events on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica, Web.com Tour and in Europe. He successfully Monday qualified into the 2011 Shriners Hospitals for Children Open (missing the cut). Ultimately, however, Kittleson never really broke through to the next level.
Even before struggling to find a place on Tour, Kittleson felt signs that maybe this career wasn’t for him. One moment stands out from the 2009 Masters, an opportunity earned from his U.S. Amateur runner-up.
Kittleson, then 19, was scheduled to play a Wednesday practice round at Augusta with Phil Mickelson. It had already felt like a long week.
“I woke up and thought, ‘When is this tournament going to start?’” Kittleson remembers. “I thought to myself, ‘Man, that’s not a good sign. I should be super pumped to do this.’ I kind of knew at that moment.”
For players like Kittleson – who have only ever known the scramble to win top junior events in order to secure a spot on a top college roster in preparation for Tour life – pure passion can get lost along the way.
Kittleson is careful to clarify that his decision to walk away from the grind was not a result of feeling that he was too good for the game.
“If I would have made it,” he said, “I would have been out there.”
There’s a reality in professional golf, sometimes only really recognized by those living it, that not everybody is on a private jet with their family week in, week out. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes scrambling.
Kittleson was married to his wife Kelsey in 2016 and they have a one-year-old son, Stone. Time with his family was not something Kittleson was willing to sacrifice, and it still isn’t. He rattles off a list of his favorite amateur events – the Northeast, the Porter Cup – like he played them yesterday, and says it’s not out of the question that he’ll seek entry again as a mid-amateur. When Stone is older, Kittleson thinks amateur golf could make a nice base for a family vacation.
The timeline is a little blurry for Kittleson, but he remembers applying to get his amateur status back near the beginning of 2016. It didn’t take long for his request to be granted – especially considering Kittleson hadn’t played as a professional for three years. Initially, his motivation in re-entering amateur golf was just to be eligible for the Pro-Scratch events he likes to play with golf buddies.
Reminders of his past life are very much welcome in his current one. He plays less than 50 rounds a year and feels fortunate to be a member at Whisper Rock (one of Arizona’s top golf clubs that has been home to several top professionals through the years). Tour player Bud Cauley was a groomsman at his recent wedding. A former college roommate and teammate, Brooks Koepka, just won his second U.S. Open.
Sometimes too much time can pass from one round to another for Kittleson, and that’s when he tries to jolt himself back into it.
“Sometimes when I don’t go play, I think to myself, ‘I’ve spent too much of my life (playing golf), I should be out there,’” he said.
At Pebble Beach, Kittleson already has plans to connect with a few current Florida State players for a practice round. He was included in a group of mid amateurs invited to dinner with the Pebble Beach director of golf. It might provide an opportunity to pick the brains of men in the same boat when it comes to juggling a job, a family and competitive golf.
Even though 10 years have passed since his runner-up, Drew Kittleson’s name is still a familiar one in amateur golf circles. He’s aware of the fact that he may get some double-takes, and a lot of questions.
“It makes me feel nice that I made a little bit of an impact on someone, somewhere,” Kittleson said of the attention. “I played golf my whole life and I really gave it everything I had. It was fun, and I have no regrets about it.”