HARTFORD, Conn. – Jeff Curl has as many bagsful of memorable and emotional recollections of Connecticut imaginable.
The pleasantries started at 3 years old as the centerpiece of a youth golf clinic at the former practice range at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell under the guidance of his father Rod, a member of the PGA Tour and a three-quarters Wintu Indian. Jeff had a miniature PING golf bag and five shortened clubs that he swung crosshanded, including a putter that his 6-year-old daughter Addison now hits around their home in Birmingham, Ala.
Curl’s shots where some of the best players in the world prepped for the PGA Tour’s annual stop in Connecticut continually flew 50-75 yards down the range and had onlookers aghast while drawing frequent applause, especially from those only three or four times his age.
“I don’t remember a whole lot about it but know what happened because my mom (Cynthia) has so many pictures,” Curl said with a smile.
Curl was born in Redding, Calif., but moved to Connecticut at 7, won several state and New England tournaments and was a four-time All-State selection while at Ellington High School, leading the Knights to the 1997 CIAC Division Championship. Three years earlier, he won the Connecticut Junior PGA Championship and later captured the New England High School Championship.
Curl played at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte for 3½ years until he turned professional at 21 when he received financial backing from the Mashantucket Pequot Indians at Foxwoods Resort in North Stonington. Curl initially competed on the Golden Bear, Tarheel and other mini-tours where he “cut his teeth.” He played the Buy.com (now Korn Ferry) Tour from 2009-16 and in several state opens, including Connecticut.
In 2007, the Connecticut Open, the state’s second biggest tournament to the Travelers Championship, was played at Lake of Isles Golf Club in North Stonington, owned by the Mashantuckets.
“I felt a lot of pressure because I thought I had to win because the tournament was at Lake of Isles,” Curl recalled. “It was my tribe, my course and my money, but for two days, I was a mess and played miserable.”
Curl was a longshot after shooting 71-72 in the first 36 holes to trail by four, but a pep talk from Kenny Reels, the chief of the Mashantucket tribe, reversed his fortunes. Curl shot one of the best rounds of his life, a 7-under-par 65, in the final round to overtake four-time champion Kyle Gallo by four.
“The chat with Kenny changed everything, and it became the biggest accomplishment of my life,” Curl said. “Winning a pro tournament or a member-guest means so much because it gives you confidence. That win meant so much because they allowed me to be a golf professional.”
In 2012, Curl qualified for the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, where he made the cut, tied for 56th and earned $21,995, besting luminaries such as former Travelers Championship winners Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson, along with Vijay Singh, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Keegan Bradley and Brooks Koepka.
Curl’s second Connecticut Open victory in 2013 was equally as memorable. He had to overcome major labrum surgery on each shoulder that still sport scars, torn ankle ligaments and a cracked vertebrae in his back. He shot 10-under in the first two rounds at Torrington Country Club, and despite a triple-bogey 7 on the fourth hole, Curl had a three-stroke lead with two holes left.
But he finished bogey-double bogey and suddenly found himself in a four-way playoff.
“It just kept unraveling,” Curl said. “All day, I felt like it was my tournament to win if I could hang in there long enough. Coming off the 18th green, I can’t remember a time when I’ve been that down on myself.”
Man, how quickly Curl’s demeanor changed. On the first extra hole, Curl made a curling, downhill 35-foot birdie putt to earn the $12,500 first prize.
“It was one of the most emotional moments of my life,” said Curl, who ran around the green in celebration after his putt disappeared. “I choked and then won and became a hero. To win in 2007 meant a lot, being sponsored by Foxwoods and winning on my home course. But this one, considering the injuries and what I’ve been through, was incredible. To make a double and triple bogey in the final round and to be standing with the trophy was unbelievable.”
But not as unbelievable as his greatest thrill in golf in 2014 when he was invited to play in the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas, on the 40th anniversary of his father’s historic victory as the only full-fledged Indian to win on the PGA Tour. Jeff made the cut and tied for 63rd.
“It was surreal,” Curl said. “Here I was in a bunker with my dad hitting bunker shots. I’d dreamed about doing that but never really thought it would happen.”
Though Curl feels he’s hitting the ball about as well as he ever has recently, he has spent most of his time working with his protégé, Nick Dunlap of Huntsville, Ala. The 17-year-old is the third-ranked junior player in the country and will be No. 1 when the two above him go to college. The University of Alabama commit was a sectional qualifying medalist for the U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Amateur, won the Dustin Johnson Junior World Championship, was second in the Pete Dye Invitational and beat Connecticut sensation Ben James of Milford on the second playoff hole in the final of the American Junior Golf Association Polo Match Play Championship.
Last week, Dunlap shot 13-under-par 271 to finish in a four-way tie for second that included James in the Boys Junior PGA Championship at Kearney Hill Golf Links in Lexington, Ky. The foursome was three strokes behind winner Caleb Surrat of Indian Trail, N.C., who shot a record 62 in the third round.
“I’ve been one of his teachers and mentor for five years, and the kid is just awesome,” Curl said of Dunlap, who was a national finalist in the NFL Punt, Pass & Kick competition. “He’s 6-foot-2, 185 pounds and wears size 15 shoes. The only two players whom I’ve seen who were as talented as him at his age are Tiger Woods and Charles Howell III.”
Curl has traveled the country caddying for Dunlap and likely won’t get much practice time for the $60,000 Connecticut Open July 26-28 at the Country Club of Darien. After spending time with his family in Alabama, Curl is working for Dunlap in this week’s U.S. Junior Amateur at the Country Club of North Carolina in Pinehurst. Dunlap, Surrat and James were among 64 players to qualify for match play, and if Dunlap reaches the final on Saturday, Curl will have to rush to get to Darien, where he played only seven holes before rain halted play during the Connecticut Open Media Day on July 8.
“I often don’t have time to get in a practice round, so it was good to see at least some of the Darien course,” Curl said.
While working with Dunlap and trying to keep his game in shape, Curl had to deal with the sudden death of longtime close friend Jeff Swanson on Feb. 20 due to a heart attack. Swanson was the head pro at Cedar Knob GC in Somers for 25 years and a major reason why the club received the 2021 Walter Lowell Public Golf Course Distinguished Service Award from the Connecticut Section PGA. Swanson created “Cedar Knob’s Golf for Kids,” a summer camp for junior golfers, where he worked closely with young players on all aspects of the game.
“He was a role model for me, a real family man with two beautiful daughters,” Curl said. “I knew him for 20 years, and he caddied for me for 11 in tournaments all around the state and region. I still haven’t gotten over not having him around.”
A fundraiser in Swanson’s honor will be held Aug. 13 at Cedar Knob, and early entries include NHL Hall of Famer Bobby Orr, a close friend of Swanson. Proceeds will go to a summer camp for kids.
Curl will be part of a 144-man field as he tries to win a third Connecticut Open, with the pros playing for a $14,000 first prize and amateurs for merchandise credit in the pro shop. The low 40 players and ties after two rounds July 26 and 27 qualify for the final 18 holes on the 28th. A year ago, Max Theodorakis felt the same pressure as Curl in 2007 when he won on his home course, Ridgewood CC in Danbury, beating Peter Ballo by five strokes.
In the event of a tie after 54 holes, there will be a three-hole aggregate playoff. If there’s a tie following the aggregate playoff, it will continue at sudden death until a winner if determined.
Featured photo credit: CSGA