Step by step: Kokrak working way to the top

Jason Kokrak knows what’s expected of him, and he’s not shy to talk about it.

On the surface it might come off as being cocky, but he doesn’t view it that way. Not with his golf game and where it might take him in his third season on the PGA Tour.

“There’s a comfort level for me,” said the John F. Kennedy High School graduate. “I know I belong and that I have the game to compete with the best in the world.

“I want to continue to get better and better and maybe start winning four or five a year like Tiger (Woods). It’s not an ego thing. It’s justifiable confidence which you have on the tour. You have to earn it. It’s not something you just do.”

Kokrak, who started the final round of the Sony Open in Hawaii today five strokes off the lead, has made all the necessary moves in his maturation as a touring pro. It started when he proved he belonged by barely keeping his tour card at the end of his rookie season of 2012.

Last season saw significant improvement in his game. He moved from a finish of 178th in FedEx Cup points in 2012 to 95th. There was no need to string birdies and an occasional eagle together to keep his card for another season.

When Kokrak kicked off the 2014 portion of the 2013-14 season this week in Oahu, there was an undeniable sense that he will take another step forward. With that could be his first win and all the coveted exemptions that would come with it.

“Everybody sort of expected me to win last year,” Kokrak said. “I came close. I was happy with the job I did of giving myself an opportunity to play playoff golf. Everyone wants to win, but one of the things is it’s kind of the monkey on your shoulder sitting there. Once you get that first one, they’ll start coming a little bit faster. If I can put myself into a position to win on Sunday, that’s the name of the game.”

If there’s such a thing as a carryover effect in golf, Kokrak might have something working in his favor. He finished strong last season, advancing to the third event in the four-tournament FedEx Cup that closes out the season for players who finish in the top 125 in points.

The run started by finishing tied for ninth place at The Barclays, which secured him a spot in the field for the Deutsche Bank Championship. He finished in a tie for 73rd there and closed out the season with a tie for 44th at the BMW Championship (the top 30 finishers advanced to the Tour Championship).

“I finished in the top 10 at the Barclays and jumped more than 50 spots,” Kokrak said of the NASCAR Chase-like points system of the FedEx Cup. “I made more in that tournament than I had with all the other top 10s combined. It was a fun year to take it to the BMW. My goal is to try to get to the BMW again, if not the Coca Cola (Tour Championship). It’s going to take a good effort from my end.”

One area that Kokrak would like to improve upon is driving accuracy. Getting length off the tee is never a problem, which he proved by finishing sixth in driving distance last season.

“I’m a big guy and I hit it a long way,” Kokrak said. “I’m always going to be in the top 10 in driving distance. It’s not just hitting the ball long. That’s good, but I want to improve my driving accuracy and work my iron game as well. My long iron game last year was really good.”

The travel demands of the tour haven’t always left Kokrak time for workouts in the gym. He’s determined to change that this year.

“If I continue working hard and working out in the gym again, I think it will be a good year for me,” he said. “It will be tough to have a better year than I had last year. We’ll just see. I have to play it by ear. If I get into a slump, I get into a slump. It’s a cyclical game. When you get it going, you have to keep it going.”

Consistency is obviously what it’s all about. Kokrak has to feel good about the improvement he made in scoring average, lowering his figure from 71.455 (146th) in 2012 to 70.924 (86th) last season.

A similar jump this year, and who knows what might happen.