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Late Bloomer
ALAN SHIPNUCK
December 18, 2006
A 47-Year-Old Tour Virgin, Jim Rutledge Is The Oldest Rookie But with a well-traveled game, a loving, healthy family and a newfound confidence, Rutledge could be the first-year player who does the most damage in 2007
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December 18, 2006

Late Bloomer

A 47-Year-Old Tour Virgin, Jim Rutledge Is The Oldest Rookie But with a well-traveled game, a loving, healthy family and a newfound confidence, Rutledge could be the first-year player who does the most damage in 2007

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In addition to a more committed practice schedule, Rutledge has also upgraded his mental game. In August 2005 he picked up Gio Valiante's Fearless Golf, and he carries it with him to this day, the dog-eared pages covered in notes he has scrawled in the margins. For years Rutledge had been known as Mr. Sunday on the Nationwide tour because of a long history of going low during the final round when he was out of contention and thus could get out of his own way. But at this year's New Zealand PGA Championship last February he finally hung up a gaudy number when it mattered, shooting a final-round 64 to earn his first victory since the 1999 British Columbia Open. "Winning early in the year gave me a big shot of confidence and allowed me to play more aggressively," Rutledge says. "I wanted to put my foot on the pedal and keep it there."

He built on the victory with four other top seven finishes and then a solid stretch run during which he landed in the top 25 in the final four events, pushing him to 14th on the Nationwide money list and securing his PGA Tour card for 2007. (Each year the top 20 Nationwide players are automatically promoted to the PGA Tour.) Ryan, now 17, and Jill flew to Houston for the season-ending tournament, and when the final putt dropped and the Tour card had been officially clinched, "the floodgates opened," Jill says. "A lot of years of tears came pouring out."

Jill has been by Jim's side for every step of the last 19 years, often caddying for him in Europe and Asia while doing double duty as a mom, which often was dirty work. "One time we were in Thailand using one of those public restrooms where there was just a hole in the ground," says Jill. "Ryan was about two, and sure enough he drops his favorite toy down the hole. He's screaming and crying and carrying on, and it's not as if I can easily find another one of these action figures, so I reach down into the hole and pull it out. While I'm doing that the room key falls down the hole, so now I have to get that, too. I'll never forget that, even though I'd like to."

Last week the Rutledges found themselves in Barbados in an altogether different setting. The swanky host resort was Sandy Lane, which became famous in 2004 when Tiger Woods was married there. While the other wives and girlfriends basted and bronzed themselves on the beach, Jill walked nearly every hole that her husband played on the hilly Country Club course. After all these years she still employs plenty of body English when Jim putts, trying to coax the ball into the hole. Jill has the intensity of an accomplished jock, which she was. As an amateur athlete in her 20s she won a gold medal in field hockey at the Canada Games and her team won the Canadian Junior National Championships in basketball, plus she's a past club champion at Victoria's Uplands Golf Club. Balky knees have forced Jill to quit caddying, which hasn't been easy on her. "It kills me sometimes to be on this side of the ropes, helpless," she says.

Jim is far more relaxed on the course, gliding around with a manner that is "as laid-back as Ernie Els'," according to Weir. Rutledge's swing is long, languid and upright, with beautiful balance and rhythm that call to mind Tom Weiskopf.

Rutledge and Weir never generated any momentum, finishing 15th in the 24-team event, 10 strokes behind the winners, Bernhard Langer and Marcel Siem of Germany. Nevertheless, Rutledge enjoyed a week of reunions with acquaintances from Europe ( Langer, Colin Montgomerie, Jean Van de Velde), Asia ( Mark Hensby) and the Nationwide tour ( Esteban Toledo and Camilo Villegas).

"All of us are so thrilled for Jim," Van de Velde said. "He's a really good guy who always fit in very nicely in Europe. He's not one of those North Americans who can't travel, who complains if he can't eat every meal at McDonald's. He can play anywhere, anytime, and I feel he will have no problem adapting to the PGA Tour."

Rutledge's Nationwide stats this year certainly suggest that he's ready. He ranked first in final-round scoring average, 10th in total driving, 17th in greens in regulation and 20th in scrambling. Jimmy Big Bomber also had the longest recorded drive of the year, a 410-yard missile, and only four players made more than his 15 eagles.

The excitable Purdy has high hopes for his old friend. "I expect Jim to win a tournament next year, and I expect him to be rookie of the year," he says. "People are going to be blown away by how good this guy is."

Typically, Rutledge's goals for his first PGA Tour season are more modest. "I simply want to have fun and savor the experience," he says. "I can't wait to play all the courses I've seen on TV."

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