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Original Issue

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

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."

In addition to a more committed practice schedule, Rutledge has also upgraded his mental game. In August 2005 he picked up Gio Valiante's Fearless Golf, and he carries it with him to this day, the dog-eared pages covered in notes he has scrawled in the margins. For years Rutledge had been known as Mr. Sunday on the Nationwide tour because of a long history of going low during the final round when he was out of contention and thus could get out of his own way. But at this year's New Zealand PGA Championship last February he finally hung up a gaudy number when it mattered, shooting a final-round 64 to earn his first victory since the 1999 British Columbia Open. "Winning early in the year gave me a big shot of confidence and allowed me to play more aggressively," Rutledge says. "I wanted to put my foot on the pedal and keep it there."

He built on the victory with four other top seven finishes and then a solid stretch run during which he landed in the top 25 in the final four events, pushing him to 14th on the Nationwide money list and securing his PGA Tour card for 2007. (Each year the top 20 Nationwide players are automatically promoted to the PGA Tour.) Ryan, now 17, and Jill flew to Houston for the season-ending tournament, and when the final putt dropped and the Tour card had been officially clinched, "the floodgates opened," Jill says. "A lot of years of tears came pouring out."

Jill has been by Jim's side for every step of the last 19 years, often caddying for him in Europe and Asia while doing double duty as a mom, which often was dirty work. "One time we were in Thailand using one of those public restrooms where there was just a hole in the ground," says Jill. "Ryan was about two, and sure enough he drops his favorite toy down the hole. He's screaming and crying and carrying on, and it's not as if I can easily find another one of these action figures, so I reach down into the hole and pull it out. While I'm doing that the room key falls down the hole, so now I have to get that, too. I'll never forget that, even though I'd like to."

Last week the Rutledges found themselves in Barbados in an altogether different setting. The swanky host resort was Sandy Lane, which became famous in 2004 when Tiger Woods was married there. While the other wives and girlfriends basted and bronzed themselves on the beach, Jill walked nearly every hole that her husband played on the hilly Country Club course. After all these years she still employs plenty of body English when Jim putts, trying to coax the ball into the hole. Jill has the intensity of an accomplished jock, which she was. As an amateur athlete in her 20s she won a gold medal in field hockey at the Canada Games and her team won the Canadian Junior National Championships in basketball, plus she's a past club champion at Victoria's Uplands Golf Club. Balky knees have forced Jill to quit caddying, which hasn't been easy on her. "It kills me sometimes to be on this side of the ropes, helpless," she says.

Jim is far more relaxed on the course, gliding around with a manner that is "as laid-back as Ernie Els'," according to Weir. Rutledge's swing is long, languid and upright, with beautiful balance and rhythm that call to mind Tom Weiskopf.

Rutledge and Weir never generated any momentum, finishing 15th in the 24-team event, 10 strokes behind the winners, Bernhard Langer and Marcel Siem of Germany. Nevertheless, Rutledge enjoyed a week of reunions with acquaintances from Europe (Langer, Colin Montgomerie, Jean Van de Velde), Asia (Mark Hensby) and the Nationwide tour (Esteban Toledo and Camilo Villegas).

"All of us are so thrilled for Jim," Van de Velde said. "He's a really good guy who always fit in very nicely in Europe. He's not one of those North Americans who can't travel, who complains if he can't eat every meal at McDonald's. He can play anywhere, anytime, and I feel he will have no problem adapting to the PGA Tour."

Rutledge's Nationwide stats this year certainly suggest that he's ready. He ranked first in final-round scoring average, 10th in total driving, 17th in greens in regulation and 20th in scrambling. Jimmy Big Bomber also had the longest recorded drive of the year, a 410-yard missile, and only four players made more than his 15 eagles.

The excitable Purdy has high hopes for his old friend. "I expect Jim to win a tournament next year, and I expect him to be rookie of the year," he says. "People are going to be blown away by how good this guy is."

Typically, Rutledge's goals for his first PGA Tour season are more modest. "I simply want to have fun and savor the experience," he says. "I can't wait to play all the courses I've seen on TV."

The World Cup was his first small taste of life in the big time. With all the players staying at Sandy Lane, its private beach became a popular gathering spot in the afternoon. One day a couple of English Ryder Cup stars--Luke Donald and David Howell--made a splash with a noisy swimming competition to a distant dock. Everyone tried to avert his or her eyes from the unforgettable sight of Miguel Angel Jiménez strutting around in a black Speedo smoking a cigar, with his Spafro spilling out from beneath a porkpie hat. Montgomerie took a long walk on the beach at sunset, looking mopey as he was alone in paradise.

In the middle of it all was Rutledge, seeming very much at ease. At twilight he and his wife and son bodysurfed in the warm waters of the Caribbean. From under the blue umbrellas on the sand, Rutledge could be heard laughing heartily, and why not? After 28 years and a million miles, he has finally arrived.

World of Hurt

The World Cup came down to which team could take the heat on Sunday, and Bernhard Langer--led Germany held up best

FINAL-ROUND pressure never takes a holiday, even in Barbados. For most of last week the World Cup felt like a working vacation, during which mistakes on the course could be washed away later at the beach with fruity drinks garnished with umbrellas. On Sunday, though, the two-man teams representing 24 countries couldn't escape the fact that they were playing for their flags, not to mention $4 million (of which $1.4 million went to the winning pair). The alternate-shot format of the final round only added to the jitters. In the end Germany defeated Scotland in a playoff on a day defined by the mistakes of various world-class players.

The Swedish team of Carl Pettersson and Henrik Stenson had looked carefree in building a one-stroke lead through three rounds, but on Sunday they made four bogeys, none more costly than a three-putt on the final hole when a par would have gotten them into the playoff. After Pettersson's five-footer rimmed out, he stood motionless staring at the Caribbean. The beauty offered little consolation. Germany secured its spot in the playoff with the biggest move on Sunday, as Hall of Famer Bernhard Langer, 49, guided his unknown partner, 26-year-old Marcel Siem, to six birdies in the first 16 holes. But the Germans gave back a critical stroke on the 17th when Langer missed a six-footer for par. He reacted with a body spasm and a shout to the heavens, a replay of his famous anguish after missing the putt that cost Europe the 1991 Ryder Cup.

The Scottish team of Colin Montgomerie and young Marc Warren reached sudden death with a bogey-free 69. So Langer and Montgomerie stepped to the tee of the 195-yard par-3 18th, a couple of European legends with a combined 72 victories. Yet each hit awful tee shots, missing left on the short side. Now it was a chipping contest between their untested partners. Warren, 25, went first and flushed his chip eight feet above the hole. Siem rose to the occasion by chipping his ball stone dead. It was all on Monty, but his putt never had a chance. The ugly miss cost his team $700,000 and untold glory back home.

Monty stomped off the green, ignoring the polite local kids requesting autographs, sunburned reporters looking for answers and frowning officials offering their condolences. No one will ever confuse the World Cup with the U.S. Open, but this year Monty gave away both on Sunday on the 18th green. As he made plain in Barbados, losing always stings, no matter the setting.

"I expect Jim to win a tournament next year, and I expect him to be rookie of the year," says Purdy. "PEOPLE ARE GOING TO BE BLOWN AWAY BY HOW GOOD THIS GUY IS."