As he prepares to compete in his sixth U.S. Amateur Championship this week, it seems that Drew Kittleson has developed something of a sixth sense in his approach to the game.
The Scottsdale, Ariz., resident is 15 years removed from a runner-up finish in the 2008 championship at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2. Although he harbors high expectations for the 123rd U.S. Amateur at historic Cherry Hills Country Club, he also brings perspective earned by having been a professional golfer who now plays the game for fun.
Take the U.S. Amateur 36-hole qualifier that was played in Florence, Ariz., on July 20-21 – the Arizona Golf Association spread the typical one-day qualifier over two days in deference to the 119-degree temperatures that the state was experiencing.
“At this point in my life, I have to pick and choose what events I can play,” said Kittleson, 34, who operates a bathroom remodeling franchise that has expanded over the past few years to employ 160 people in three states. “Having to take two days off, it gives you a little extra incentive to play well.”
That he did, making only one bogey over 36 holes on a course (Poston Butte Golf Club) he hadn’t seen before to earn medalist honors with rounds of 68-65. His most recent start in a U.S. Amateur came in 2018 at Pebble Beach, when he missed out on match play in a playoff that involved 24 players for the final spot. This year marked only his second attempt at U.S. Amateur qualifying in the succeeding five years. As a married father with a 6-year-old son (Stone), Kittleson notes, “I want to try to qualify every year, but sometimes life comes up.”
Kittleson has managed to embellish his USGA résumé the past two springs with impressive runs in the 2022 and 2023 U.S. Amateur Four-Balls. He and partner Drew Stoltz, another former professional who hosts a popular podcast with two-time USGA champion Colt Knost, posted back-to-back runner-up finishes at the Country Club of Birmingham (Ala.) and Kiawah Island (S.C.) Club, respectively.
“My game room at home has three runner-up medals, and I would love to add to, or maybe even improve on that,” said Kittleson, who lost to Danny Lee, 5 and 4, in the 2008 U.S. Amateur final after they were the last two standing in a field that included several current notable players: 2023 Open champion Brian Harman, 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed, Rickie Fowler, Billy Horschel, Nick Taylor, Adam Hadwin and Jhonattan Vegas.
Kittleson turned professional in 2011 after completing his college career at Florida State, where he helped the Seminoles earn their first Atlantic Coast Conference title while playing – and rooming – with future five-time major champion Brooks Koepka.
“He was always an elite ball-striker,” said Kittleson of Koepka. “Nobody hit it like him in college, and I’ve still never seen anything like it. To think that we’ve had five major titles come out of our house on Bullocks Run Road in Tallahassee, it’s amazing.”
Kittleson’s own attempt to scale the professional ranks was made more difficult by a unique hurdle.
“When I committed to play at Florida State at 16, I was 5-foot-6 or 5-foot-7,” said Kittleson. “By my freshman year, I was 6-foot-1, and then 6-foot-3 by the end of my sophomore year. Although I played well at times in college, I was a better player at 16 or 17. I think my body needed more than the three years that I gave it to calibrate in going from 5-6 and 145 pounds, to 6-3 and 190. I was a super late bloomer.”
Kittleson gave up the play-for-pay quest after two-plus years that included fewer than a dozen starts combined on PGA Tour Latinoamerica and the Korn Ferry Tour, and three PGA Tour Qualifying attempts. He admits that he could never see himself chasing the dream for 10 years or more, as some do.
For the next three years, Kittleson played fewer than six rounds a year, as he transitioned into taking over the Scottsdale branch of Re-Bath, a business that had been founded by his father. He regained his amateur status in 2016, the same year he married his wife, Kelsey.
Kittleson plays much of his golf at Whisper Rock in Scottsdale as part of a group of about 30 players, half of whom are PGA Tour pros. Among those he competes with in friendly fashion are Stoltz, Knost, 2023 U.S. Open champion Wyndham Clark, Max Homa and Chez Reavie.
Kittleson arranged for Kelsey to join him on Nantucket after he qualified for the 2021 U.S. Mid-Amateur so she could have a first-hand look at a USGA championship, and he made it to the Round of 16.
“I was kind of done with my golf life when we got together, so she had never seen me compete,” said Kittleson of his three-year hiatus. “I think it caught her off-guard a little bit, but now she gets it. I’m a golfer. That’s how people know me even though I don’t do it for work. I’m very appreciative of how supportive she is.”
Though the game may not be Kittleson’s livelihood anymore, he has his moments, such as when he reeled off four birdies in seven holes to boost him and Stoltz into the semifinals of this year’s Four-Ball.
“For anybody who had some version of success in golf, I think there’s always that question, could I have done it?” said Kittleson. “I think it’s human nature to wonder, but I try not to dwell on it much. If I play my best, then I think I can play at an elite level. The question is, how often can I play my best? I wish I had the recipe to conjure it up, but if I did, I’d be heading to Rome to play in the Ryder Cup.”
Competing in his sixth U.S. Amateur obviously suits Kittleson just fine.
Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.