How I Got In To Golf

The First Swings with Dad

My dad first introduced me to golf around high school.

He started by taking my brother Aaron and I to a local 9-hole golf course in House Springs, Missouri, a course which no longer exists, and we would play a few times a year with Dad's old persimmon clubs he got when he was in college.

After I started to take a greater interest, he then got me a box set from Wal-Mart and I played my junior year on our high school team.

On a good day, I’d break 50 for 9 holes. I remember in one of my first junior tournaments, I shot 118…a very nervous 70 on the front nine followed by a much calmer 48 on the back nine.

Mike Austin and the Guinness Book of World Records

Once I had a sense of golf, one particular thing that stood out to me when I used to read the Guinness Book of World Records for fun as a teenager was Mike Austin's 515-yard drive, which I'll circle back to at the end of this post.

An older Mike Austin holds a fairway wood

But briefly, Mike Austin, is the guy who at 64 years old in 1974 hit a Guinness World Record 515-yard drive during the US National Senior Open in Las Vegas.

To give you some perspective, the average amateur golfer hits drives in the 214 yards/drive range.

It was difficult for me to fathom how anyone could hit a ball like that at any age, particularly with 1970's golf equipment technology - an old steel shafted persimmon wood driver and balata ball.

The Bucket List and the 2001 PGA Championship

After college, I started working as a computer engineer in 1998. By that time, I had become a 14-handicap golfer (basically, an average amateur golfer) and had broken 80 once on the Walker Golf Course at Clemson University.

The Walker Course at Clemson University

But I knew the corporate world wasn’t going to be for me for the long term, so, in my spare time I started checking off things on my bucket list.

One of those things was to go to every major sports event at least once – for example, one Super Bowl, one NBA Finals, the tennis Grand Slams (which I’ve now been lucky enough to do), etc. One week when I was 25, I happened to be working in Atlanta training technicians on our proprietary software and the last day of training for the week on Friday got cancelled. With the extra time I then had, I bought myself a ticket to the 2001 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club, the one David Toms won with the hole-in-one on the Par 3 15th hole.

Jaacob Bowden at the 2001 PGA Championship

If you’ve ever been to a major tour event, you know that the holes are roped off. Once the players pass, the marshals open the ropes and let the crowds pass across the hole. As it worked out, I was the only person at one of these crossings. As I got to the middle of the fairway, I had the view of a player being inside the ropes looking out at the galleries. At that moment, I felt like the sky got brighter, a veil was lifted, I felt warmer, and I first got the inspiration to pursue a career as a professional golfer.

Meeting Dan Shauger and Mike Austin

It took me about a year after that to muster up the strength and courage to quit the stability of my computer engineering job, but I finally did.

Unfortunately, the culture at my computer engineering got pretty bad due to the company getting sold and restructured multiple times. That ended up being a positive, though, because it helped give me the courage to make the leap.

I also had gotten to a place mentally where I didn't want to turn 40 and wonder if I could've made it had I only tried. Plus, unlike many other sports where players start retiring around 30, I figured with golf I would have time to get good. In fact, if one is healthy and motivated, one can be a competitive tournament golfer almost to "normal" retirement age.

At 27, I sold everything I owned, packed up what remained into my car, drove out west from Kansas City to California feeling an aliveness like never before, lived in a sleeping bag in a dirty garage for a year, and got up about every day and, literally through a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, got myself good enough to turn pro and cash my first check 6 months later when I won the Pinnacle Distance Challenge with a televised 381-yard drive.

Jaacob Bowden wins the Pinnacle Distance Challenge with a televised 381-yard drive

This progress was in part due to a serendipitous meeting I had when I first moved to California. About a month after I had moved out to Los Angeles, I was on the driving range on a really windy day. There was one other guy behind me practicing as well. All of a sudden, a huge gust of Santa Ana wind came up and I stumbled back into the space where he was hitting. I would have crashed into him if it not for the wind blowing him backwards as well. It got us chatting and we remarked on our dedication to practicing in such adverse weather.

That guy, the late Dan Shauger, had just retired from building movie and TV sets in Hollywood, was teaching golf in his retirement and was there that day at the course contemplating getting a membership so he could take a crack at the Senior Tour. He ended up being inspired by what I was doing, bought himself a membership so we could practice together, and he also offered to start teaching me pro bono. As it turns out, he was also great friends with an old pro named…you guessed it, Mike Austin.

Here I was, just starting my golf career, and I was getting to meet the very same Mike Austin that stood out to me all those years ago as I kid when I would read the Guinness Book of World Records.

Sometimes I wonder if those moments I remember vividly as a kid were a foreshadowing of destiny to come. Maybe it was just chance. I’m not sure. But it still amazes me how those dots somehow connected in such a surreal way.

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