By Jim Black
TWENTY-TWO consecutive missed cuts so far this year and a first round exit in the Paul Lawrie Match Play. Jin Jeong’s golfing nightmare shows no signs of ending after yet another missed weekend at the Italian Open.
But spare a thought also for the 26-year-old Korean’s caddie, John Wilkie, who has had to endure the pain of watching the former world No. 1 amateur’s continued disintegration for the past nine months.
You would be forgiven for imagining that the Largs bagman has had more than his fill of working with the 2010 Amateur champion – the first Asian to achieve the distinction.
But Wilkie is clearly made of stern stuff, for far from despairing of Jeong’s inability to even complete four rounds, he remains resolute in his belief that his employer will eventually turn the corner.
“Jin hasn’t suddenly become a bad golfer,” he says. “In addition to winning the Amateur Championship, he won the Silver Medal at the 2010 Open, where he finished tied 14th, and I think there are only two or three people who have managed that achievement in the same year.
“I am not exactly getting rich but he’s such a nice fellow and a pleasure to work for. His commitment is 100 per cent and I am committed to continuing to work with him because I believe he can turn it around. Otherwise I wouldn’t still be here. I would have jumped ship before now.
“The fact is I’m working for somebody I enjoy going to work with even though he’s shooting cricket scores some times.”
After turning pro in 2011, Jeong showed considerable promise when he captured the ISPS Handa Perth International title in October 2013 barely little more than a fortnight after finishing fifth at the first qualifying stage section D of Tour School at Frilford Heath.
His maiden European Tour victory removed the need for him to pursue his card through the normal channels as he earned an automatic two-year exemption.
But in spite of his relatively quick success in the paid ranks, it has largely been a story of missed cuts for the Melbourne-based player ever since.
A shared second place at the 2014 Joburg Open could not disguise the fact that he also failed to make the weekend 17 times in 24 starts on the European Tour.
Last year was even less productive. An unbroken run of nine missed cuts, including being forced to retire twice due to a hip problem, preceded his current sequence of 22.
It has in fact been nearly two years since he last completed four rounds at a European Tour event.
That was in November 2014 when he finished 76th at the WGC-HSBC Champions, earning his most recent pay-cheque of 31,644 Euros.
In his defence he was hampered last year by a hip injury that led to him being given a medical exemption for the current campaign.
But the fact remains, Jeong is currently languishing in 1865th place in the world rankings and some critics have suggested that it’s high time he gave up the struggle and sought alternate employment. His faithful caddie doesn’t agree.
He said: “Jin switched coaches in the last few months. He was being coached by Martin Joyce, an Australian, who wanted him to hit everything left to right and it was very technical. Now he’s switched he’s going through a transitional period where he’s changing his swing entirely and hitting the ball right to left.
“Previously his bad shot was a block right, which was costing him shots right, left and centre. The last couple of weeks he’s switched to a new swing, which is taking a little bit of time to settle in and he just has to trust it. Now he has to aim down the right whereas before it was down the left.
“Every round that goes by he is starting to trust it more and more and he is spending a lot of time on the range perfecting it. So I think he’s about the turn the corner and I feel that it’s a bit unfair of certain people to criticise him to the extent they have done.
“I’ve been with him since January and his commitment and attitude is 100 per cent.
“He’s a perfect gentleman. He’s never thrown a club although he does get a bit frustrated with himself at times when he hits a bad shot because he knows the potential is in there. But he’s never lost his temper or shouted at me or had a bad word to say.
“In fact, he’s starting to enjoy himself on the golf course again because he senses it’s very close.
“He knows he may have to go to tour school, but he’s so confident he thinks he can do it in the next four weeks. We’ve got four tournaments left and he thinks he can get his card up, if not win a tournament, so he’s confident, not down.”
Wilkie revealed that he is not alone in keeping the faith. Jeong’s new coach, Brad Malone, who is Adam Scott’s brother in law, also remains cautiously optimistic.
Malone, who also coaches Alvaro Quiros, David Howell and Nathan Holman, believes in Jin, according to Wilkie.
“Most important of all, Jin also believes he can turn the situation around,” says the robust Scotsman. “And we are 100 per cent behind him.
“I’ve been a caddie since 2000 and I’ve not experienced a run like this before.
“But he’s still taking medication for his hip injury that kept him out last year although he says that it no longer bothers him.
“But it’s maybe another factor that has worked against him nonetheless, albeit no way is he blaming the hip injury for his play and scores. As far as he’s concerned that’s done and dusted and he’s fine now.”
Wilkie spent his first three years as a caddie working with fellow Ayrshireman Sam Torrance and more recently a further four-and-a-half years on Michael Campbell’s bag until 2014.
But while the New Zealander has experienced his own share of tough times since he was crowned US Open champion in 2005, Campbell’s decline almost pales into insignificance compared to that of Jeong’s.
However, while some others have clearly given up on the amazingly resolute Jeong, Wilkie is clearly not of a mind to quit and walk away in search of an easier life – and, one suspects, considerably richer pickings.