J.J. Killeen had his first press conference in a decade late Monday afternoon. It was conducted from inside his car somewhere in Kerrville, Texas, selfie-style, of course.
“Well, that was nails,” the sunbaked, stubbled 39-year-old former Nationwide Tour Player of the Year-turned-Twitter personality said after Monday qualifying for this week’s PGA Tour stop, the Valero Texas Open. “Credit to me. Playoff season, my goodness. Super fired up to get in.”
Then the self-deprecating humor of the West Texas Driving Range Pro (his Twitter handle) with the cult following kicked in.
“Family support obviously is awesome,” he continued. “My son told his teacher his mom has two jobs and his dad has zero, so it will be cool for him to watch me. Hopefully I can make a cut and he’ll think I actually have a job this week.”
One big step is already out of the way.
Killeen shot a five-under 67 to tie for fourth in the Monday qualifier at the Club at Comanche Trace. Then he beat Blake Elliott on the second extra hole to survive a 2-for-1 sudden-death playoff to earn the final spot in the field this week at TPC San Antonio.
Getting through means his first start on the PGA Tour since the 2015 Valero and first on any major tour since 2016. It also led a string of congratulations and well wishes on Twitter.
But to know Killeen as a social media sensation is to only know a sliver of his story, or the man.
In college, Killeen was a solid if not standout player at TCU. Though he didn’t win any tournaments, his success was in his consistency, playing in 50 tournaments over four years for the Horned Frogs and netting a half-dozen top-10 finishes and 16 top-20s. In 2005, his senior year, he was named Conference USA Golfer of the Year and became just the third athlete in school history—in any sport—to play on four conference championship teams.
Things moved slower once he reached the pros, though.
After bouncing around the mini-tour circuit for a couple of years, Killeen finally landed on the Nationwide Tour (now Korn Ferry Tour) in 2008. Once there, his progression was steady but unspectacular, with seven top-10s sprinkled across three seasons. And in 2010, he missed getting his PGA Tour card by a single stroke, shooting a two-under 70 in the final stage of Q School at Orange County National.
But then it happened: In 2011, Killeen won twice on the Nationwide Tour, in back-to-back weeks, at the Utah Championship, where a final-round 65 led to a four-stroke victory, and again at the Cox Classic, where he held on to win by one. He finished the year as the circuit’s top money-winner, banking just over $414,000, was named Player of the Year and bound for the PGA Tour.
The stay wouldn’t last, though.
In 33 starts in 2012, Killeen had just one top-10 and nearly as many missed cuts (16) as made (17). His best finish was an eighth place at the True South Classic (now the Sanderson Farms Championship) but he finished the season 145th in the FedEx Cup standings and lost his card.
The following year, he made the cut in just 10 of 20 starts on the Nationwide Tour. The grind that tour life had also taken its toll. Following two shoulder surgeries, Killeen, now a father of two young kids, found himself at a crossroads in 2014 and weighing career options: continue to chase the dream or pursue a new one.
Opting for the latter, Killeen and some high school buddies launched 4ORE!, a Topgolf-style entertainment facility in Lubbock, Texas, in 2017. He’d also started teaching, which in turn led to a presence on Twitter.
Still, he never gave up on the tour entirely and over the last two years tried his hand at various Monday qualifiers before finally breaking through this week, which naturally led to a final parting thought in his one-man press conference.
“I think it might be a great night to have my first-ever cerveza,” Killeen deadpanned. “Maybe I can win and make magic happen.”
In some ways, it already has. Cheers.