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Late Bloomer
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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When the PGA Tour season kicks off next month, 47-year-old Jim Rutledge will hardly be your typical rookie. In more than a quarter century of pro golf, spread across Canada, Asia, Europe and the Nationwide tour, Rutledge has seen and done it all. He's teed it up with Gary Player and Arnold Palmer, and at the 1990 British Open, where he was on the leader board at the Old Course heading into the weekend. "I missed Nicklaus by one group," Rutledge says. He has played through monkeys in Singapore and snakes in Thailand and kept home bases in London and the Philippines. Along the way he's become a walking Zagat survey, able to tell you where to find the best lemon chicken in Kuala Lumpur, the tenderest Kobe beef in Tokyo and the tastiest vegetable samosas in Calcutta. Note that Rutledge doesn't recommend his typical breakfast when playing in India--two samosas and a Coke. "You'll have heartburn by the 2nd hole," he says gravely.

Rutledge's long journey across the golf landscape began in his native Victoria, B.C., where he picked up the game at age 10. By 17 he had won two Canadian junior national championships, and in his spare time he would travel down the coast to Seattle, where he beat up on his contemporary, Fred Couples. "He was fantastic," says Couples. "I would say he was as good or better than me most of the time. He was extremely talented." And that's coming from one of the most naturally talented players ever to pick up a club.

Rutledge turned pro in 1978, and at 19 won his first event on the Canadian tour. Over the next two decades he typically spent Decembers and the first three months of the year playing in Asia, returning during summers to the Canadian tour (where he has six career victories and is second, to Mike Grob, on the alltime money list). From '88 through '91 he played on the European tour, back when it was the center of the golf universe. Wherever Rutledge went he wowed with his talent.

"I remember my first couple of years playing the Canadian tour, I didn't want to play a practice round with the guy," says Mike Weir, who last week teamed with Rutledge to represent Canada at the World Cup in St. James, Barbados. "I hit it so crappy, and he hit it so pure, it was like, How am I ever going to beat someone like this? So I stayed away from him to keep my confidence up."

"Jim has one of the best swings in the world," says Ted Purdy, the 2005 Byron Nelson Championship winner who roomed with Rutledge on the Asian tour in 1997 and '98. "He is probably the most underrated player in all of golf."

If the 40-year-old virgin was a shut-in afraid to experience life, the 47-year-old rookie is exactly the opposite, a free spirit who was so happy in so many different places that he was never too concerned about making it to the PGA Tour. Rutledge regularly went through the motions at the Tour's Q school but wasn't bothered much when he inevitably fell short. "It was not the be-all and end-all for me," Rutledge says of the big stage in the U.S. "I enjoyed the experience of being in Asia. I enjoyed being at home in Victoria. I was always surrounded by people I liked, and I was making good money. It was a nice life."

Beginning in 2000 Rutledge consolidated his schedule on the Nationwide tour, largely for family reasons. His son, Ryan, was entering middle school in Victoria and could no longer jet off to exotic locales with his mom, Jill, for weeks at a time, as had always been the custom. In 2001 both Jill and her father, Tom Smith, had symptoms that were diagnosed as cancer. Smith died in '03, but Jill fought on, and after surgery, radiation and chemotherapy she has been given a clean bill of health. After his wife's recovery something changed in Rutledge's game.

"Jim always had that typical Canadian mentality: Just go with the flow," says Purdy. "He never really pushed himself, but he didn't have to because his game was so solid. Jill inspired him. He saw her tenacity and her fight and it rubbed off."

In November 2005 Rutledge went through Q school for a 13th time and flunked out yet again. This time it stung. "I was playing good, and I thought I should have made it through," he says.

Rutledge was ready for that Q school because instead of hibernating in Victoria when the weather got cold, he had stayed at Purdy's house in Phoenix to keep working on his game, a practice he continued this year. "The kids call our guest room Jim's Room," says Purdy. "He drives my cars and drinks my beer, but he's a great guest. He'll do the laundry and clean the house before he leaves. He's a better husband than I am."

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