MY FIRST EVENT AS A PRO WAS ON THE PGA TOUR. My agent knew the folks who ran the FedEx St. Jude Classic and got me a sponsor's exemption in 2014. Also helping my case was the splash I'd made a week earlier representing Oklahoma State University in our runner-up finish at the NCAA Championship. I began my pro career two under par through 11 holes, then rain sent us to the hotel early. I flicked on the tube and watched my best friend since childhood, J.T. Realmuto, make his major-league debut catching for the Miami Marlins. He had two hits. We texted, both out-of-our-heads happy. Two kids from Midwest City, Okla., playing pro ball—what are the odds? I woke up and missed the cut. It's taken me four years to get back.

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MY DAD, RON, PLAYED FOR THE TEXAS RANGERS' TRIPLE-A TEAM. But we knew him as our gym teacher. He was disciplined, quiet and believed he could change kids' lives. He was a scratch golfer and would bring me along in diapers with plastic clubs. When I was 6, I shot 79 teeing it up from 150 yards out on every hole.

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AT JOHN CONRAD REGIONAL GOLF COURSE, SOMETIMES PRISONERS CUT THE GRASS. I always kept my head down as I walked by them, but a few times I snapped photos and sent them to my rivals at country clubs. But I had every opportunity. My extended family pooled money for my travel so I could grow as a golfer and eventually get in front of recruiters. I had success early, like winning the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship at 9.

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EACH SUMMER, THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA GOLF TEAM RAN A JUNIOR CAMP. One of the counselors, Kelsey Cline, was a recent graduate playing mini-tours. He remembers I looked like any chubby 10-year-old eating chicken tenders and fries, but that he'd never seen anyone my age hit a bunker shot with such fast hands. He didn't have a younger brother, and I didn't have an older brother, and we became golf buds. When I was 11, he caddied for me in a U.S. Junior Amateur qualifier. On the first hole of a playoff, our opponent drops a 40-footer for birdie. I cry. Kelsey says: "Golf is hard. You're going to be in these situations again and again, and, in time, some will go your way."

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WHEN I WAS 13, I PLAYED GOLF THE DAY AFTER A BASEBALL TOURNAMENT AND SHANKED EVERYTHING. I decided the two swings were in conflict, and that I'd quit baseball. My uncles, all baseball nuts, held something like an intervention. I said out loud that I wanted to become a pro golfer. It was hard when my friends came back from games telling stories and laughing, but I knew where my future lay.

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I WAS OUR HIGH SCHOOL VALEDICTORIAN. I chose not to give a speech, in part to prevent ridicule, but also because I planned to sacrifice my education. I briefly considered majoring in engineering at OSU. That is, until I saw the cots in the science building. Coach Mike McGraw politely confirmed that none of his players had ever pursued that subject.

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MY NICKNAME IN COLLEGE WAS MOOSE. When we ran gassers on the football field, a senior said I sounded like one. Other than 6 a.m. workouts, there was no scheduled practice. We'd loosely gather at the golf course for lunch after our last classes. I was there from 12:30 to 6:30 every day but never played better than fourth in our lineup. Guys like Morgan Hoffmann, Kevin Tway and Peter Uihlein were always ahead of me. Life on a premier team is good. We flew on a private jet and ate steaks at Ruth's Chris.

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EVEN THOUGH I NEVER WON IN COLLEGE, I HAD EIGHT TOP-FIVE FINISHES. Harold Varner III, a friend, suggested I meet his agent. Jeff Stacey secured me that first start in Memphis and some start-up cash with a Callaway deal. I spent $2,750 to enter Mackenzie Tour qualifying, made it, then played all 12 events on the summer calendar. Driving across Canada, booking cheap hotels and managing expenses—it's a step down in lifestyle from college. But the top-five finishers get a Web.com Tour card, and the next five go to Web.com final qualifying, so it's a way to get to a big stage in three months. In two seasons, I finished 15th and 17th. Brutal.

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THERE'S A DIFFERENCE PLAYING FOR A TROPHY VERSUS A LIVELIHOOD. I'd never competed against guys with families. They're smarter, more methodical. I saw that if I didn't adjust, I'd have to try to find a job in the corporate world, which I never wanted. So I started scheduling every minute of my life. I invested in a trainer to help me heal a recurring back injury. Rather than wake up whenever and hit balls, I had a set practice program. Every moment of my waking life became purposeful.

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MALCOLM BAKER IS A VETERAN CADDIE WHO PASSED UP VIJAY SINGH AND K.J. CHOI TO TAKE A CHANCE ON ME. He knows the tricky chips, the places to eat and helps me not feel like a rookie. But he wasn't on the bag for my win. There was a death in his family the week of the Web.com's 2017 News Sentinel Open, and so who took a week off from work? Kelsey Cline. When the last putt dropped, we hugged. The win meant I would qualify for this season's PGA Tour. I'd never felt such emotion. We'd waited 15 years for one to go my way.

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I'M STILL LEARNING. The difference between the player ranked 250th or 50th isn't much. It's about finding a small edge in every way possible. Charles Howell III, a former Cowboy, has invited me to meet him on the first tee every Tuesday at 7 a.m. for practice rounds. So far I haven't missed one. — With Max Adler


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