ST. JOSEPH — Jacob Kern hasn’t been enamored with his short game this golf season.
“I’ve been putting in some extra time at the putting and chipping range,” the St. Joseph-Ogden sophomore said. “I’ve been able to keep working at it so it can get better this year.”
Last Tuesday, Kern revealed the culmination of those efforts.
Lining up his third shot on Danville Country Club’s par-4 16th hole during the Class 1A Schlarman Regional boys’ golf tournament, Kern cleanly chipped his ball toward the front of the green.
Kern was about 90 yards from the pin when attempting this shot, and a steady wind threatened to send it wayward before it ever touched the ground.
“I started off by clubbing down, because I thought I was going to overshoot the green,” said Kern, who turned to his 60-degree wedge instead of a sand wedge he was considering utilizing. “That was just the right amount of club to get it to the hole.”
After the ball connected with the manicured grass, it began a slow roll. Creeping toward the hole over the course of roughly 20 yards, which matched Kern’s personal-best chip distance before this round.
“I didn’t think it was going to go in,” Kern said. “But one of the players I was playing with said that it went in. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s amazing.’”
What made the moment even more meaningful for Kern was that the birdie on his scorecard helped him acquire the final individual advancement spot from that regional.
Kern’s 88 was good enough to qualify him for Tuesday’s Class 1A Tuscola Sectional at Ironhorse Golf Club. He’ll tee off at 11:24 a.m. and play his final 18 holes of the IHSA season — that being the case because state tournaments this fall have been canceled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m going to be putting extra emphasis on it because I feel like I should try to do my best whenever I can,” Kern said. “I’m a little nervous and excited for it because this is my first time ever going to sectionals.”
Kern isn’t a lifelong golfer, though playing the sport since seventh grade means he holds significant experience considering his age. He began his prep tenure watching then-Spartans seniors Payton Grimsley and Joe Acton move on to a Class 1A sectional as individuals last season, when they both carded an 89 in the preceding regional.
“Them qualifying for sectionals made me want to push myself farther,” Kern said, “so that I was going to be able to qualify for (sophomore) year and hopefully for years to come.”
SJ-O’s roster last season wasn’t even deep enough to record a regional team score. But under first-year coach Jeff Kern — Jacob’s father — the Spartans now boast 14 competitors. With this growth in roster size has come an improvement in preparation habits.
“We went twice a week to go practice (this season), and last year it was maybe once every other week,” Jacob Kern said. “It’s been very helpful to us to become better as a team.”
Based on regular-season results, Kern and fellow sophomore Ty Pence had the best chance at giving SJ-O a sectional presence if the team couldn’t move on as a whole. Pence shot a 93 and the Spartans ranked fourth of nine programs, just 17 strokes away from a top-two position that would have advanced them collectively.
“It’s been amazing that we’re able to represent the St. Joe school as a whole as a golf team, and that we’re able to get more people out for the golf team,” Kern said. “Maybe we can hopefully get some more next year so we can ... be able to qualify for sectionals or maybe even state.”
Kern will turn his attention on Tuesday morning to his own exploits at Ironhorse. He hasn’t played a competitive round there this season, but he practiced at the facility on Friday and Sunday.
“There’s a lot of out of bounds on the course and water hazards,” Kern said. “You need to know where you can miss on the course. ... It’s going to be tough for a lot of players that can’t always hit it straight.”
Still, Kern believes his game is well suited for Ironhorse’s difficulties. He’s just hopeful that allows him to stack up with his opponents.
And if he comes across any especially challenging chip shots, he now knows he possesses the capability to convert them.
“I’m going to be thinking back to it,” Kern said, “but I’m just going to try to focus on what I’m doing now for this tournament, for sectionals.”