Longtime placekicker Jason Witczak hopes to apply the lessons he learned in football to his play in the National Championship.
By John Kim, PGA.com Coordinating Producer
SEASIDE, Calif. -- Jason Witczak, a PGA Professional from Phoenix, knows he can perform under pressure -- how to make solid contact, how to follow through and how to send the ball to its intended target. Of course, we're talking kicking footballs.
Witczak, an assistant professional at Adobe Dam Family Golf Center in Glendale, Ariz., spent 11 seasons as a professional football player; a kicker in the NFL (three seasons) for the Tennessee Titans and Buffalo Bills as well as duty in NFL Europe and the Arena Football League. But injuries and a recurring love of golf (Witczak played Division I football and golf at Marshall University) eventually took him off the gridiron and back onto the greens.
Witczak opened his first round at the PGA Professional National Championship with an impressive 1-under 71 on the Black Horse course on Sunday, but it was his journey to the event and previous sports background that has captured the interest and fascination of so many.
"There's a reason kickers (and quarterbacks) tend to be the better golfers," Witczak noted prior to his opening round. "In crunch time, when the pressure is on, they want the game in their hands. Golf is like that. It's a mental test, very much like kicking. You practice, you train, you work out; all to prepare you for that critical time when you have to come through."
Witczak can also identify with the precision and solid mechanics that both sports require. Of course, in golf there are no 250-pound defenders charging at you or loud, boisterous crowds and "freeze" timeouts to deal with.
"There are some differences," he said. "Really, the biggest difference is, in footall, as a kicker, you get maybe three or four chances to come through in a round. In golf, you can have 65 or 70 or 75 other shots to make up for a mistake. That's the beauty of golf. I have more chances to hit a good shot, more chances to make up for a not-so-good shot."
Witczak also noted another big difference between the two sports.
"In football, you can be perfect. In my last game, the Arena Bowl, I went 10 for 10, set an Arena Bowl record," he said. "In golf, you can't be perfect -- you can always do better."
In order to qualify for his first National Championship, Witczak had to be nearly perfect when it counted. After battling tough competition and enduring a long rain delay near the end of his final round, he had plenty of time to contemplate his situation and what he needed to do.
"I knew I had to birdie my final hole or else I'd have to take my chances in a playoff with six other guys," he explained. It was the ultimate 90-minute "freeze" of a golfer -- similar to an opposing coach calling timeout prior to a critical field goal attempt.
"I hit a 3-iron off the tee and then, with 267 to go, hit a 5-iron to 15 feet," he said. "That feeling, it's like hitting a game winner from 50 yards, that's the feeling you want to have -- to keep making those moments happen."
Witczak can reel off several special moments in his life -- including his favorite from his football days.
"In my first NFL game, I was with the Tennessee Titans, we had a three-point lead late and I was kicking off. The Bears return man, Jerry Azumah, broke through the wall and seemed headed to the end zone and to hand the Bears the win. Well, I was just young enough, and -- at the time, fast enough -- to go after him and able to lay a pretty good lick on him," he said. "Not only made the tackle, I hit him hard enough where he wasn't able to get up for awhile. So the good news is, I made the play. The flip side is, I learned that kickers really shouldn't be making too many tackles in the NFL. That was my first tackle, it was also my last."
So if Witczak sees Mike Small coming down 18 on Wednesday with a one-shot lead over him, will he think about running up and tackling the front runner?
"I'm about being a golfer now," he laughs. "I hope I'm the one people are looking at and chasing."