May 17 - 23, 2021 The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort
Ben Kern stands with Brooks Koepka after finishing as the Low Club Professional at the 2018 PGA Championship
Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

As memorable as the 2018 PGA Championship was for Ben Kern, what happened six days earlier was an equally auspicious prelude for a PGA Club Professional about to play in his first major.

The former Kansas State University golfer won the Texas State Open at the Cascades Club in Tyler, Texas. One of the jewels on the Texas golf calendar, the tournament began in 1960 and boasts a roster of champions that includes Jack Burke Jr., Lee Trevino, Ben Crenshaw, Jeff Maggert and Blaine McCallister.

Kern, now a 35-year-old PGA Head Professional at Georgetown Country Club, posted rounds of 70-64-62-70 for a 14-under-par 266, winning by two strokes and becoming just the second club professional to claim the trophy. He earned $42,500, which ramped up his confidence before heading to the PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club outside St. Louis.

But it almost didn’t happen. Kern forgot to register ahead of the deadline for the Texas event. As an alternate, he had to wait over a week to gain a spot in the field.

“The Texas State Open, no matter how I played, it’s a very competitive event. I felt no matter how I played, I knew it would be good prep (for the PGA Championship),” said Kern. “Then to win one of the toughest state opens in the country was huge rolling into the PGA.”

Once at Bellerive, Kern paused to reflect. “It’s always been my dream to make the PGA Tour. I spent six years playing the mini-tours and it didn’t work out for me. I told a lot of people before I got to the PGA that I was going to enjoy it whether I shot 100.”

After a first-round 71, he was even par on Friday afternoon as he approached the par-5 18th hole and was the last PGA Club Professional from a 20-member delegation with any chance of making the 36-hole cut.

“I hit a good drive, but blocked the second shot,” said Kern. “I hit my approach to between 10 and 12 feet. I was thinking two-putt and I’m here for the weekend. I put the ball down, hit it and it went in. It was uphill; I couldn’t have given myself an easier putt.”

Once in the scoring room, Kern admitted to shock. “I came off the green saying to myself, ‘I made the weekend,’ “Later that day, it was nerve-wracking to watch the coverage and wait to find out if I had made it.”

Kern made the cut by one stroke, as Bellerive yielded the lowest 36-hole cut in PGA Championship history.

Safely in, things freed up for Kern. He found a choice spot to hit practice balls Saturday, just to the left of Tiger Woods, then went out and posted a 67.

Kern was paired Sunday with two-time major champion Zach Johnson, who was impressed with his playing partner’s game.

“It felt like I was playing with one of my peers on tour,” said Johnson. “He really has a pretty simple game which translates to quality golf, whether it’s in a major or in a state open. There’s a reason why he’s here.”

Though the big guy in the bucket hat appears low-key, Kern was nervous. Johnson helped him relax.

“The time Zach spent talking to me on every single hole, walking down the fairways, waiting on every tee box,” said Kern. “He made me feel so comfortable on what could have been such a stressful situation – a Sunday in a major.”

On No. 10, after both were walking to their drives, Johnson asked Kern, ‘Why in the world aren’t you out here?’” Kern closed with a 70, tying for 42nd in a group that included former PGA Champions Keegan Bradley, Martin Kaymer and Jimmy Walker, and past Masters Champion Charl Schwartzel.

Holding the crystal bowl for Low Club Professional, Kern stood shoulder to shoulder with PGA Champion Brooks Koepka on the 18th green while introduced to a worldwide TV audience.

“My mindset was just to have fun no matter what,” said Kern. “I was able to stay relaxed and not get carried away with thousands of people outside the ropes.

“2018 was my dream year. There were numerous, numerous events and the way they played out. . .It’s what I dream about.”

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