This is Stephan Jaeger
From Germany to Chattanooga to the Web.com Tour winner's circle: How the 28-year-old made it to the PGA TOUR
September 13, 2017
By Adam Stanley, PGATOUR.COM
From Germany to Chattanooga to the Web.com Tour winner's circle: How the 28-year-old made it to the PGA TOUR
Despite his 5-foot-9 frame, when you first lay eyes on Stephan Jaeger, you might be intimidated.
His walk is casual, yet calculated. His emotions can usually be found on his sleeve. And of course, he’s also won three times in 14 months on the Web.com Tour, shot a record-setting 58 a year ago, played in the U.S. Open, and earned his PGA TOUR card, too.
But then you might see him joking with caddie Aaron Flener, or having a laugh with high school teammate Keith Mitchell – more on them later – and realize there’s nothing to be intimidated about.
Until, that is, he beats you on the course with typical German precision.
At 28, Jaeger is hitting his golfing peak at the right time, as his first crack on the PGA TOUR is right around the corner. He’s been within shouting distance of No. 1 on the money list for most of the year, and currently sits No. 6, one great finish away from leaping to the top spot.
But Jaeger’s journey to the TOUR hasn’t taken a direct route, as he went from Germany to Chattanooga, Tennessee, of all places, for starters.
This is Stephan Jaeger.
The world keeps spinning, and Stephan Jaeger keeps on winning. ⛳️— Web.com Tour (@WebDotComTour) June 12, 2017
🏆 🏆 🏆 pic.twitter.com/FGg14ATOMc
The Baylor School in Chattanooga is one of America’s finest secondary school institutions, boasting innumerable state championships in many sports, hundreds of graduates who have gone on to Ivy League schools, and teachers who are constantly up for national awards.
It’s also the place where Jaeger got his start in golf in America.
And how he did it has become the stuff of legend.
“I asked if the course was in yards or meters, and off we went,” recalls Jaeger with a laugh.
Jaeger had just arrived in United States for the first time on an exchange year that, he says, a lot of European high school students do. His family went through an agency that had ties to American private high schools, and Baylor jumped out at him because he had read a few stories about its golf team, which, at the time, had won 10 out of 11 national championships.
“It was an easy decision,” he explains, as the team also featured the likes of Harris English – now a two-time PGA TOUR winner – and Mitchell, who remains one of Jaeger’s closest friends to this day.
Although Jaeger almost brushes off the success he had during that first tournament, as he was fresh off the plane from Germany – the team played The Honors Course in Chattanooga, arguably one of the hardest courses in the state, and the site of where Tiger Woods shot 80 in the final round of the 1996 NCAA Championships (and still won by four) – Mitchell is not as casual about it.
“It was our first tournament of the year, in high school, and I had played that golf course hundreds of time growing up in Chattanooga, and I think I shot 78-81, maybe even worse. I had played that course hundreds of times and nobody knew Stephan. They didn’t know what he was doing. His English was not good at the time, and we didn’t really know how to communicate with him … we literally didn’t know him,” says Mitchell, building the drama.
“Our coach reluctantly let him play because we didn’t know if he was going to shoot 110 or what. He went out as an individual, versus part of the team, and shot 74 (Jaeger says it was 71) and we all thought, well, ‘This kid can play.’ And the next round he shot 68 and was first on the team, other than Harris (English). I remember our coach going absolutely berserk, because this kid spoke no English, just got off the plane, was jet-lagged, played the hardest course in the state and beat everyone on the team.”
Perhaps it’s the straightforward efficiency of the German people that makes the Jaeger version of the story of his debut a little bland as compared to Mitchell’s robust re-telling of that fateful day more than a decade ago, but Jaeger still feels like his time at Baylor helped shape him as a person and a player.
“The good thing about the South is that everyone is really welcoming. I felt welcomed pretty early,” says Jaeger. “Playing good golf probably helped in the beginning too.
“My English was broken, but I could communicate and hold a conversation pretty well. The longer I stayed, the more fluent I got.”
And it didn’t take long for Jaeger’s teammates to warm up to him, either.
“I wouldn’t call him a shy person, but you can imagine flying to the States for the very first time and you’re playing a golf tournament where you know literally no one there. Nobody. That’s why it was so amazing,” says Mitchell. “Someone picked him up at the airport, took him to the golf course, and he shot 68. We were like, ‘Wow.’”
Mitchell says their golf team, coached by the late Henry Oehmig, who died in 2015 at the age of 63, was run like a college team. Players had to qualify for each of the tournaments, played the back tees at each course, and practiced every day after school. He says it was probably easy for Stephan to fit in because he wasn’t the only boarder student (someone who lives on-campus) who was on the team.
Mitchell’s father, too, stuck a nickname on Jaeger that was equal parts appropriate and eye roll-prompting.
“My dad called him ‘BMW.’ It was jokingly lame but he was the ‘ultimate driving machine’ because his driver was just so good and so straight, and of course, he was from Germany,” says Mitchell.
While Jaeger was making impressions on his teammates and coaches, literally a world away from home, he was still questioning whether or not he was going to make golf his full-time career choice.
In an earlier interview with PGA TOUR Digital, Jaeger said even as he got to his senior year of high school, he wasn’t sure if the success he had was going to translate to the pro game.
But playing professional golf had been a dream of his since he was younger and grew up with a European Tour event on his home course, right next door to where he lived.
“Sometimes guys realize it’s just not the job for them,” he said. “We travel 30-plus weeks of the year and it’s hard. If you’re a homebody, you can’t do it, no matter how good you are.”
That may have been what had impacted Jaeger when he first made the Web.com Tour in 2015 and missed 15 of 19 cuts, as he was adjusting to not just golf at the professional level, but also everything else that is involved with the game.
“My game has just gotten better every year, which is what you want to see,” Jaeger explains, looking back on his rookie year on Tour. “I feel more comfortable on the golf courses and on big stages. I’ve improved part of my game every year and I want to continue to do that every year on the TOUR, and compete in majors every year.”
And when asked why his friend had a bit of a coming-out party on the Web.com Tour in 2017, Mitchell says it’s a simple formula.
“Stephan struggled until this year with his driving and irons a little more than his chipping and putting. His chipping and putting got so good it made up for his (poor driving and iron play), but we knew he was a hell of a ball-striker at one point in his life, so this year he’s found that,” he explains.
“Imagine someone who learns how to hit it long and straight, and hits their irons well, and has the best short game on Tour? They’re going to win twice.”
It was a hell of a start to Flener and Jaeger’s player-caddie relationship in the summer of 2016.
Flener was caddying for Kent Bulle, who had earned Web.com Tour status after finishing second on the 2015 PGA TOUR Latinoamerica money list, for the first part of the year, but Bulle wasn’t sure if he was going to be playing much in the second half of the season, so he called up Jaeger and asked if he needed a caddie for the next couple of tournaments.
Jaeger said he was hoping for a caddie for the balance of the year, so they decided to try for three or four events and see how it went.
“It was wild. I started in New York last year, we got along good and things went well. The fourth week on the bag was the week he shot 58 and shot 30-under and broke all those records. Once he won, I was like, ‘Sorry, Kent,’” says Flener with a laugh.
It’s no hard feelings for Flener and Bulle, however – Flener is Bulle’s best man at his upcoming wedding – and when no offers came along for Flener to move up to the PGA TOUR and caddie, while Jaeger remained on the Web.com Tour, the dynamic duo hooked up again this year for what has been a fabulous ride.
“We picked back up early this year, struggled a little bit, but he has such a good attitude and is so confident, he just said to stay with it because he knew he was going to get hot at some point,” says Flener.
Although Jaeger missed four of his first seven cuts in 2017, things turned around quickly after he notched a win at the rain-shortened BMW Charity Pro-Am presented by SYNNEX Corporation. He won again two weeks later at the Rust-Oleum Championship, qualifying for the U.S. Open in between – although Flener wasn’t on the bag during the qualifier, as Jaeger’s longtime girlfriend took the reigns instead.
There was a plethora of reasons to be excited for the second win of the season, but Flener laughs when he recalls why the Rust-Oleum title was particularly special.
“My big thing was that we couldn’t drink out of the steering wheel at the BMW (Charity Pro-Am), so once we got that win in Chicago, I thought, ‘Oh, good, we can drink out of that one,’” says Flener.
When Jaeger was 14, he played a couple of other sports but he saw more talent in golf. Although he admits countryman Bernhard Langer didn’t inspire him – he was part of the era of golfers inspired more so by Tiger Woods – he did grow up with two-time major winner Martin Kaymer in his sights.
“Langer wasn’t really my idol, maybe Kaymer. But I’m only three years behind Kaymer, so I was trying to beat him at the time,” says Jaeger with a laugh.
He’ll join his fellow German on the PGA TOUR next year, with a handful of straightforward goals.
When asked if there was a tournament Jaeger is excited to play in next year, just to see what it was all about, he answers briefly, without expanding on his reasoning at all.
“The Masters,” he says.
Although in order for him to earn a spot there for 2018 he’ll need to win one of the events in the fall or an early-season PGA TOUR event, there’s no reason why that couldn’t be on the horizon, as Flener feels the duo has put in the work necessary to get to the winner’s circle.
“I had a regular job and I quit it a couple of years ago. Anyone’s goal, players or caddies, is to be on the PGA TOUR, so obviously I’m extremely lucky that it’s with Stephan, who obviously has the talent,” he explains. “I’ve learned a lot the last three years as far as being a caddie and what your responsibilities are. I feel like I’m ready.”
Jaeger has proved he’s ready over the last two seasons – getting consistently better, winning, shooting the lowest round in the history of the Web.com Tour, for example – but now it’s time to put that to the test with the best in the world.
“It’s a long road in golf. You don’t peak at 18 like other sports where you have to peak really early,” he says. “That’s the good thing about golf: You can peak late and still do good things.”