Craig Hocknull's backstory is like no other player
Craig Hocknull might be the most interesting man in the 2018 PGA Championship field
BYBob Denney | PGA of America,August 7th, 2018·
Craig Hocknull said that he never considered making PGA of America history by his journey through golf and life, but he has.
The 43-year-old Hocknull, who will compete in this week’s 100th PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, continues to add to a multi-faceted professional career that mimics an Indiana Jones film – only with a golf theme.
Hocknull is the PGA Director of Instruction at Saber Sports Trainer in Gilbert, Arizona, during nine months of the year, and spends his summer as PGA Director of Instruction at Glenwild Golf Club & Spa in Park City, Utah. By advancing through the Southwest PGA Section Championship, Hocknull went on to earn his first major championship berth, by finishing tied for 12th in June in the PGA Professional Championship.
“I felt like I should have earned a trip to the PGA Championship years ago,” said Hocknull, “but things didn’t fall in place. Now, I feel that it is a great honor, and I’m ready.”
He is the first PGA Club Professional in a PGA Championship who is a tri-national association member – the PGA of Canada, the PGA of Australia and the PGA of America. This week, he will be granted his request to have the Australian flag by his name in the Championship.
“The goal wasn’t to necessarily be unique,” said Hocknull. “The goal was to give myself the best résumé for career advancement and give myself opportunities in three different countries, if needed.”
The Canadian connection has worked well for Hocknull in meeting new students and members in Arizona; the Australian PGA membership enables Hocknull to play in various Australasian and European Tour events; and as he said, “keep up on the educational advancements of the PGA of America.”
“They are all three different and all invaluable,” said Hocknull, who has been a member of each association for more than a decade.
He also is a trick shot artist who has performed in six countries, and an inventor whose latest creation – the Saber Cat putter – was given USGA approval in June. Hocknull will have the club in his bag this week at Bellerive, having passed his personal “feel” test when he won last month’s Southwest PGA Match Play Championship.
Hocknull is an Australian citizen, a resident alien carrying a Green Card since 2003. He was born in Mendi, in the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea to Scottish parents who had emigrated there a few years before his birth. At the time, New Guinea was a territory of Australia. The island achieved independence in 1975.
While a prep in Queensland, Australia, Hocknull attended The Kooralbyn International School (TKIS). He is its first graduate to go to America and play professional golf. Among TKIS alumni are Cathy Freeman, a 2000 Olympic 400-meter track gold medalist; and 2015 PGA Champion Jason Day and 2013 Masters Champion Adam Scott.
Hocknull spent some time in his youth in the Australian Outback living among the Aboriginals.
“I’m an Outback kind of guy, and spent time in Darwin, the Northern Territory,” said Hocknull. “I had multi-cultural upbringing, and hopefully, it has helped in my golf to not to get too high or too low.”
Perhaps that experience among the Aboriginals – indigenous Australians who have dealt with their own measure of discrimination over the centuries – toughened Hocknull. He accepted a golf scholarship from Jackson State University in Mississippi, and from 1993-97, was a white person competing at a Historically Black College and University.
Things went well in the classroom, as Hocknull sped to a 4.0 grade point average his freshman year. He also carried the best stroke average among Division I schools. Ultimately, his collegiate career would include being a member of three Jackson State teams that won the PGA Minority Collegiate Championship. His junior year, Jackson State landed its first NCAA Regional berth.
Jackson State University was then coached by Eddie Payton—Walter’s brother— and had fought for Division I respect. Hocknull described their rugged season schedule, winning Southwest Athletic Conference titles, and yet the Tigers didn’t get enough votes by the Golf Coaches Association for an NCAA Regional trip three of his four years at the school.
“We felt like we deserved the votes,” says Hocknull. “We were left out my senior year, and my teammate, Tim O’Neal, got an invitation to go as an individual representative. Tim turned that down because he felt the entire team should have been invited.”
Hocknull’s time on campus at Jackson State, where he lived in a duplex with other members of the golf team – was what he described as like “living in a bubble.”
“Here I was, white and naïve and had to learn about why people treated people like they did,” says Hocknull. “I got threats and I had people coming up to me saying things that I didn’t understand. Most of the time I got a pass, because they found out I was from Australia. If they had known how Australians had treated black Australians, they would have been twice as mad.
“I remember one guy came up to me and said, ‘You owe me 40 acres and a mule.’ I had to go research that to find it related to slavery and what the price of freedom meant.”
They don’t pass out medals for enduring a life-threatening series of incidents in college, and Hocknull lived through his share, including an attempted armed break-in to start his freshman Christmas break.
Hocknull managed to slam the door back on two intruders, including one with a silver revolver. Yet the gunman managed to get off two rounds point blank, with one bullet zipped over Hocknull’s shoulder.
Hocknull called his parents, who demanded that he leave school immediately. He resisted, considering that the plane tickets were too expensive, and that he had excellent grades and a solid position on the team. “It was very scary staying there for that winter break,” recalled Hocknull.
“That was the neighborhood where we lived. There were other times where shots were fired near our apartment and one bullet came through the roof and ended up on the living room floor.”
As Hocknull moved on his golf career, he earned PGA Membership in 2001. He gained Nationwide Tour status in 2011 and had to withdraw from the 2012 PGA Professional Championship. His attempt to become a tour professional didn’t work out, and he devoted his time to developing his niche as a PGA Professional.
That niche has worked well, with Hocknull being named the 2014 Southwest PGA Teacher of the Year; the 2014 Section Player Development Professional of the Year; and was the 2013 Section Junior Player Development Professional of the Year and 2013 Section Player of the Year.
In 2017, Hocknull’s Saber Golf Trainer was picked the “Best New Product” at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando.
The next test for Hocknull is competing in his first major championship. He said that he has a taste of competing in front of large crowds. “I played in the 2017 Waste Management Open in Phoenix, where they have had more than 200,000 spectators on a Saturday,” he said.
Hocknull isn’t alone is his special journey in golf and life. During his college career, he met his future wife, Laura, who worked in Jackson, Mississippi. They have three sons: Hugh, Gregor and J.C., who will caddie for his father this week.
“I’m excited to test my skills at that level,” said Hocknull. “I’m excited to get to do it at the 100th PGA Championship.”
Watch below: Tour Bellerive like you have never seen it before