KORN FERRY TOUR INSIDER
J.J. Killeen looks back at 2011 Player of the Year-winning season
December 01, 2020
By Adam Stanley, PGATOUR.COM
- J.J. Killeen captured his first Korn Ferry Tour title at the 2011 Utah Championship presented by Zions Bank. (Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Olivia Killeen may not remember her first birthday, but her father, J.J. Killeen, certainly does.
At the 2011 Utah Championship presented by Zions Bank, Killeen captured his first Korn Ferry Tour title. He did it in dominating fashion – by four shots over Jeff Gove, after opening the tournament with a course-record 62 – kick-starting a run that led to Player of the Year honors.
After Killeen’s victory was confirmed, Olivia ran onto the 18th green to greet her father. There’s a photo-of-the-year candidate of her next to the trophy (which is about the same size as her) online. Her grandfather – J.J.’s dad – was caddying that week. Killeen’s wife, Tasha, was there too. They had been traveling together for most Korn Ferry Tour events the previous few years, after getting married in 2006.
“My daughter grew up there, really, the first two years and almost until she went to kindergarten. It was just normal,” said Killeen of Korn Ferry Tour life in the early 2010s. “Her first birthday … she doesn’t remember obviously, but it was a cool experience for us.”
That first victory could have been the catalyst for a decade-long run on the PGA TOUR with perhaps more family moments on a 72nd green. It never happened for Killeen, though. Golf is hard, and suffering a big-time injury (on both shoulders, which required surgery) made it even more difficult.
But the lack of PGA TOUR success hasn’t brought Killeen down, at least now as he reflects back on that magical year.
He’s now a successful teaching professional, at home in Texas, trying to help both the twice-a-month golfer and the nearly-made-it golfer get better. He started a successful golf entertainment venture called 4ORE! (akin to TopGolf) and boasts more than 13,000 followers on his active, and hilarious, Twitter account.
He has reactivated his Korn Ferry Tour status and tried a few Monday qualifiers this season (which he calls ‘Monday Shooters’). Overall, Killeen is just content with life and golf. He knows he may not have maximized his opportunities at the professional level, but so it goes.
“I knew I was playing well; it wasn’t like I was missing half the cuts and then there were two lightning-in-a-bottle weeks. Not too many people have done that, in general, in a season, so that’s what’s cool,” said Killeen of 2011. “(Whatever happens) … I don’t feel like professional golf-wise, or as a competitor, I was a failure by any stretch.
“Would I be disappointed I didn’t play on the PGA TOUR longer, sure, but not many people played that well on the Korn Ferry Tour, played that competitively, or been Player of the Year. I see it as just an awesome year. Everything clicked.”
Killeen started his golf career as a youngster in California but really got serious about the game when he moved to Texas as a teenager.
He played every sport in high school but compounded his humerus playing football as freshman – not so humorous – and that was it. Golf was part of his life at age 10, but he focused solely on it in Texas when he played and practiced every day.
His father, Joe – a doctor in Lubbock, Texas, and occasional caddie – got him into the game. J.J. (Joseph James) didn’t have a golf instructor until he was of driving age, so he didn’t get recruited until late. He played for Texas Christian University and was, in a word, a star. He was the Conference USA Golfer of the Year in 2005 and was just the third athlete – not just golfer – in school history to play on four conference championship teams.
His professional career didn’t get off to as idyllic a start as he would have liked, and he didn’t find his footing on the Korn Ferry Tour until 2008, when he played 29 events and finished 56th on the money list. His best result was a runner-up, sandwiched right in the middle of eight missed cuts.
Still, Killeen was improving steadily. He would go on to finish 44th in 2009, with three top-10 results. He was a little more inconsistent in 2010, but still had three top-10 finishes and was safely inside the number to earn Korn Ferry Tour status again for the following season.
Late in 2010, he was hovering around the top-60 mark, which at the time was the cutoff for maintaining full Korn Ferry Tour status. He began working with an instructor, Chris O’Connell (best known for turning multi-time PGA TOUR winner Matt Kuchar’s game around). He finished T8 at his first event after working with O’Connell and made two more cuts to end the year.
He advanced through Second Stage of PGA TOUR Q-School that year, earning a chance at a TOUR card via Final Stage. He said he ‘turned it on’ that week, and on the final day he was right on the number to earn TOUR status. It was cold, he said, and he played solid but not good enough. He was just 1-under for the day and missed by one shot.
“Frustrating, obviously, but at the same time I had been playing well at the end of the year and played well through Q-School to make it to that point,” said Killeen. “I was feeling pretty good about things heading into the 2011 season.”
A lot of people don’t realize how quick the turnaround is from the Korn Ferry Tour season to Q-School to the start of the next year. Q-School, which back then featured a six-round finale, usually takes place in the first week of December, and the following season begins five weeks later. It’s a short time after a full year of mentally and physically grinding to keep your job.
That didn’t deter Killeen, with 2011 on the horizon. He made the first six cuts of the year, his fourth season on the Tour. He was comfortable on the golf courses, and it showed. He finished fifth and then T5 in back-to-back weeks in May and early June. At that point he had worked with O’Connell for six months.
“I was playing solid,” he said. “Everything was trending in the right direction.”
Still, though, Killeen needed to put together four good rounds in order to win – which is easier said than done.
Through the summer months on the Korn Ferry Tour, that’s when the scores are at their lowest. Killeen said it’s easy to lose patience when you know you have to shoot 3-, 4-, or 5-under to make the cut most weeks.
“When I won, I shot 8-under on the first day and I played in the afternoon the next day and I was five back before I teed off,” he said. You have to be mentally tough to be successful, too.
“There’s self belief and things like that, but it’s easier to be patient when you’re playing well because you know you have the potential to birdie any hole. You’re striking it well, you know the opportunities and the odds are going to be in your favor,” he added. “If it’s just smoke-and-mirrors, it’s tough. It’s tough to grind it out and shoot those low scores for four days.”
Killeen did just that in Utah, with a score of 22-under. That Sunday, he told PGATOUR.com just how special the whole week was.
“I got a little emotional when I saw my wife and daughter. It just feels great. I’ve never felt this good before,” he said at the time. “I hadn’t won out here and hadn’t won since some amateur tournaments.”
Ironically, the final question posed to Killeen by PGATOUR.com that Sunday was about the balance of his schedule for the year, and where he was going to play next. He said, “nothing is guaranteed out here,” and that he would play the following week in Omaha.
It was a good decision.
“I went to Omaha the very next week,” said Killeen now, “and I played identical golf (to Utah) and I won again.”
Indeed, Killeen shot 22-under, again, and won by one shot over a foursome of golfers including future TOUR winners Jonas Blixt, Ken Duke and Danny Lee, along with Gary Christian.
The following week, Killeen missed the cut, but he had a chance for the Three-Victory Promotion at the following week’s KC Golf Classic. He shot 63-65-66 but couldn’t take it across the finish line on Sunday and finished T4. Still, Killeen ended the year with seven top-10 finishes, and six of them were top-five results.
“When I played well, almost every time I was in contention,” said Killeen, who missed only four cuts all season. “Something that’s difficult about the Korn Ferry Tour is, again, it doesn’t matter where you play, you have to play well in order to win on a major Tour, without a doubt.”
Killeen earned just over $414,000 for the year and would top the money list by more than $12,000. He would earn Player of the Year honors, and the only thing ahead of him was the PGA TOUR.
With golf, nothing is guaranteed. Killeen knows this well.
He played 33 events on the 2012 PGA TOUR and missed 16 cuts. He had just one top-10 result and finished 145th on the FedExCup standings.
He and his wife had a good friend group on Tour, and some of that crew transferred to the TOUR – guys he played against in college and their wives and kids. He, as the Korn Ferry Tour’s Player of the Year, was on a big stage.
“The one cool thing about golf is that it’s such an individual sport, but everyone respects what it took to get out there,” he said. “There aren’t any handouts.”
Still, even for the Player of the Year, he was not immune to the impacts a long season – and truly, a long life on golf’s grind – had on his body. Both shoulders got hurt, and those injuries required surgery. He didn’t play, really, for four years. He started teaching, which led to an online presence. His Twitter following gets an engaged, inside-the-ropes look at TOUR life.
“I’m not going to say it’s a no-filter situation,” said Killeen with a laugh, “but I know what a lot of the players are thinking. There is a component where you have to be respectful to the game in general. But there’s a time, especially from the non-golfers, where they want a certain insight from some people that used to play all the time.”
In addition to his social media presence, Killeen’s golf entertainment company and teaching take up a lot of his time these days. A lot of his business relationships, he said, come from the Korn Ferry Tour and those he has met along the way. Those pro-am groups have turned into people who took an online lesson.
“Not a lot of people have the patience … and terminology/understanding for golf-related things that are complex. The simpler you explain something, you just never know when it will click for someone. I know what common faults are,” said Killeen of his teaching philosophy. “I’m not a bio-physicist, with how the body moves, and those guys are geniuses. But at the same time, you never know what might help someone learn a new skill.”
Killeen himself has learned a few new skills since his big year in 2011.
He has a second kid now, Joseph James II (born in 2014). After a couple of surgeries on his shoulder, he got his real estate license. He didn’t really know what the smartest thing was going to be for him and his family after he stopped playing for as long as he did (he last made a Korn Ferry Tour cut in 2015) but he seems to have fit into a nice groove, personally and professionally.
Just because he’s not where he thought he might have been after 2011, it doesn’t mean he’s not still happy with how life has unfolded.
And one never knows what might come next.
“It’s been fun, doing all that,” said Killeen. “But at the end of the day, I still love to play golf and be competitive. Hopefully again one day I’ll be decent. Champions Tour, 2033, here we come baby. I’m ready to roll.”