Walking on one of Tacoma Golf and Country Club’s tightly-mown greens at dusk, professional golfer Jesse Schutte studied the contours. The 35-year-old would tee it up in the final qualifying stage for the U.S. Open the following morning, but Schutte had no idea what the course looked like.
Schutte could tell the speed of the greens was off the charts, perhaps as fast as the greens at the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club, where Schutte was the first alternate. Schutte practiced around Merion’s greens 10 years ago waiting for someone to withdraw, waiting for his chance – a chance that never came.
The sun was quickly setting at Tacoma G&CC but Schutte would only be able to see a few holes. The five-hour drive from Florence, Oregon, had been frantic and unsettled. His wife, Lupita, was due to deliver their first child days before, but Elsie Schutte still hadn’t arrived in the world. Jesse and Lupita agreed if their little girl didn’t arrive by Sunday morning, Jesse would travel to qualifying and hurry home as soon as he could.
Jesse knew the first round of competition would likely serve as his practice round. His discomfort showed in his first round scorecard. Through eight holes, Schutte made two double-bogeys and was 4-over par.
“I’ll never give up,” Schutte said. “I know what I’ve got and I know what I’m made of. I just need the opportunities to present themselves.”
Schutte’s familiarity in surviving uncomfortable situations in professional golf extends far beyond the golf course.
In 2018, Schutte earned status on the Asian Development Tour through Asian Tour Q-school. Players who don’t excel at Final Stage of Asian Tour Q-school are relegated to the ADT. There isn’t much money to play for and many of the tournaments are in places most golf fans have never heard of. Still, there’s a way to advance with stellar golf and that’s all most pro golfers need to take a leap of faith.
One tournament during the ADT season was played in a particularly remote location in Malaysia. Schutte flew into Kuala Lumpur but getting to the tournament required a four-hour drive into the jungle. The farther he traveled from the airport, the more strange things became. He’d never heard the languages being spoken. Never seen the writing on the signs. The pictures on restaurant menus didn’t even make sense to him.
Schutte wasn’t sure what he ordered at the local village restaurant and even after finishing the bowl, he wasn’t sure what he had eaten. He met his caddie at the golf course and the two went to the driving range. That’s when Schutte began to feel ill. Soon after he could barely move. The scene became worrying for everyone around the driving range.
An ambulance took him to the local medical clinic, which was in disrepair. Schutte decided the clinic might be in worse shape than his health at that moment and left. He returned to his hotel room where his condition worsened.
“For seven days, I was bedridden and I thought I was going to die,” Schutte says. “In that moment, I felt further away from everything and anything that I had ever known at that point in time. You want to go to the hospital but we were in a third world country in such a small village. I was scared of the hospital.”
He never figured out what his sickness was, but eventually recovered, left the hotel and returned to competition on the ADT.
When the COVID-19 Pandemic hit in 2020, Schutte had been playing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The flight he booked to return home was canceled. As Asian countries first encountering the pandemic began to shut down, he watched as airlines canceled flight after flight. Schutte made it to Hua Hin, Thailand for an indefinite quarantine. He’d end up stuck there for six months.
“It wasn’t bad. We were able to play golf most of the time. We were locked down for one month with a curfew, which was crazy,” he recalled.
As soon as he was allowed to leave, Schutte returned to his hometown of Florence, Oregon, a town of around 10,000 people. He resumed competition on the mini-tours, but injured his neck and decided to take a break from professional golf.
“It was actually a blessing in disguise,” says Schutte. “We had one of the best junior golf programs in the whole state of Oregon at my home course (when Schutte was a kid). When I moved back, we didn’t have a junior golf program and we didn’t have a high school golf team. Not being able to play, I got together with the head pro at my club and we created a junior golf program.”
Schutte and Nikolas Remer, the General Manager at Florence Golf Links, who is also from Florence, started a program based on the one they both remembered from their junior golf days.
“We want golf to be as easily accessible as possible,” says Remer. “When we first got the junior program going, we went down and asked for donations from the community for golf clubs, and Jesse and I cut down and re-gripped a couple hundred golf clubs, so that if kids don’t have something to hit, we can provide that for them.”
Schutte and Remer started junior camps in the summer and rebuilt the high school golf team. In their first season, 16 players joined the team. Florence Golf Links created a policy that all junior and high school golfers could play for free. The number of players on the high school team increased to 39 the following year and the team won their last seven tournaments of the season, including the district championship.
The junior golf camps have also grown significantly in the past two years and this summer, the Florence Boys and Girls Club will participate. The progress brings Schutte happiness but its mere existence means something more to him.
“I would have never been here today at the U.S. Open if I wasn’t given that opportunity as a kid,” Schutte says. “My family couldn’t afford to play golf. That junior golf program we had when I was a kid allowed us to go hit as many golf balls as we wanted for free. We were allowed to just go play. I really think this is going to help kids. Golf is a great learning experience.”
When Schutte set off to play professional golf, a mentor told him to never forget the kids – and he hasn’t.
Schutte returned to competition last year and has been playing in Monday qualifiers and state open tournaments. While he didn’t have any major breakthroughs results-wise, he’d been shooting good scores and building confidence.
Remer has watched Schutte’s career closely and noticed his confidence recently peaking. “I think it was three or four days before he went up there (U.S. Open qualifying), he went out and shot 30 on our front side and then got called away for a doctor visit with his wife and the baby.”
That’s why he and Lupita decided Schutte needed to be playing in the U.S. Open qualifier and not waiting in a hospital room.
After two double-bogeys on the front nine of U.S. Open final qualifying at Tacoma G&CC, Schutte settled down and focused. He rallied, playing the following 27 holes of the 36 hole day, in 7-under par.
In the closing holes, he knew he was at the top of the leaderboard. Schutte knew he would do the improbable and to demonstrate it, hit a driver “off the deck” for his second shot on the final hole, a par-5. He only needed to make par and friends watching held their breath nervously. But Schutte played confidently and aggressively. He knew what it was like to be first alternate for the U.S. Open and not get to play. He controlled his own fate and wouldn’t back down.
“That’s my game,” Schutte says. “Aggressive is how I enjoy playing. Some people get scared of the moment. That’s not me.”
Schutte didn’t have time to celebrate the accomplishment. He had a tee time in the U.S. Open, but the whirlwind of emotion was far from over. He drove straight from the golf course back to Florence. He arrived at the hospital at six in the morning, just in time for Lupita to deliver their first child, Elsie.
Talk about perfect timing.
Remer says Schutte has inspired their community.
“The U.S. Open – or any professional golf – we watch it on tv, but it doesn’t seem like something you can grasp,” says Remer. “It’s like a big Hollywood action movie: you love the actors in it but you can’t picture yourself doing it. With Jesse having so many connections to the community and to the juniors here, it makes that attainable. It makes it a possibility within their life.”
As Schutte walks the grounds at Los Angeles Country Club, he feels blessed. “I really can’t explain it. I feel like I’m up in the clouds, man,” Schutte says.
His journey has been far-reaching and uncertain, but it’s all led here, to the biggest stage in golf, as Elsie’s Dad.