- Wayne Drehs
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LA QUINTA, Calif. -- The moment Brian Kortan returns to Albuquerque and sets foot on his home course with his college buddies, the jokes will begin.
"You hear that guy say you were flying under the radar?" they'll ask. "I mean, duh -- where else is a guy your size gonna fly?"
They don't care that Kortan is a PGA Tour pro. They don't care that in about 4½ hours, he will beat their brains up and down Ladera Golf Course and take their money. They just know that he's their buddy. And he's 5-foot-3. And if they don't give him grief about that, there's nothing else left.
"The little things, like he doesn't know when it's raining down there compared to the rest of us," said Wright Zimmerly, the head professional at Ladera and a friend of Kortan's from his college days at New Mexico. "And that the wind doesn't affect him as much from down below. We get on him about all that stuff."
Kortan typically smiles, laughs and then dominates on the golf course, buying the beers after the round after walking away the big winner. Just last week, before leaving Albuquerque for Qualifying School, in a laid-back skins game with his pals, he set the course record with a 60.
"He's the guy you give your money to get your lottery quick picks on Wednesday and Saturday," Zimmerly said. "Everything he touches turns to gold."
It wasn't always that way. Kortan grew up in Yankton, S.D., population 12,000, At his size, he found it challenging to compete with friends in everything from baseball to tennis. Then he found golf.
"I'm not sure if I chose golf or it chose me," Kortan said. "But I knew it was something where I could be competitive."
Kortan played throughout high school, earned a scholarship to New Mexico and became a college All-American. After graduation, he plugged away on golf's mini tours, earning some $60,000 a year, but was never able to obtain his PGA Tour card, failing to reach the finals of Qualifying School five consecutive years. But he kept improving.
"And if you're a businessman and business keeps getting better, you don't give up," he said.
His resiliency paid off last year, when Kortan shot 10-under at Q School to leapfrog the Nationwide Tour and go straight from the mini tours to the PGA Tour.
"It was like, 'Wow. I'm on the PGA Tour. What the hell do I do now?'" he said.
Kortan was instantly the shortest player on tour. And he struggled, finishing in the top 25 in just one of 24 events played and placing 200th on the money list. That brought him back to Q-School, where he is tied for 51st place with 36 holes to play. The top 30 plus ties earn their PGA Tour cards.
Carrying his bag for the second consecutive year is his younger brother Rob, who works as the assistant pro at Ladera.
"It's a friendly face on the bag," Kortan said. "He understands my game, what I'm feeling, what I'm thinking. And it's great that he can share it with me."
As nice as it would be for Kortan to regain his PGA Tour status, he has a rather refreshing perspective on the pressure-backed week that is the Q School Finals -- it's just golf.
After watching his father die of cancer in 1996, and then seeing his mother get diagnosed with breast cancer and his sister get diagnosed with ovarian cancer shortly thereafter, he learned a whole new meaning to life. Though his mom and sister beat the disease, their battles and his father's death stuck with Kortan.
"I don't want to sound like an angel, because I'm not," Kortan said. "I'm going to throw a golf club. I'm going to cuss. But in the same token, it's a golf shot. Nobody got hurt. Nobody died.
"I've seen a whole gamut of things that have taught me -- life, it is what it is," he said.
At the practice range here at PGA West, statuesque guys who stand 6-0 and above line up by the dozen and rip off jaw-dropping drives. Kortan, in some cases more than a foot shorter, often hits it 40 feet further.
In his own way, he's a unique physical specimen. He doesn't have the weight or leverage of an average-sized player so he has to swing harder to compensate. For most people, it would kill their accuracy. Not Kortan.
"Because he puts in so much time and is so repetitive, he can hit the same spot on his driver every single time," Zimmerly said.
Last season, Kortan ranked 47th on tour in driving distance.
"I'm a person," Kortan said. "That's all. Yeah, I'm short. But it's just a thing. There's nothing horribly wrong with me, I'm not deformed or anything. I'm just short."
And it's being short that brought him to the game. And it's being short, Zimmerly believes, that helps motivate Kortan.
"I hate to use the term Napoleon, but he's had an uphill battle for a guy his size," Zimmerly said. "Playing around us bigger guys, he's always had this chip on his shoulder trying to prove something. He's always had a little attitude, in a good way. Nobody I know works harder."
Kortan has a 3-year-old son named Cade and wife Elaine, who works as a school teacher, is due with their second child on New Year's Day. All Cade knows about Daddy's career is that he stays in a lot of hotels and hits little white balls.
"And on the phone, he tells me to make lots of birdies," Kortan said. "But that's about it."
Kortan says he isn't driven by money. He isn't driven by PGA Tour success. His motivation is being the best PGA Tour, Nationwide Tour or mini-tour golfer a 5-3 guy from Albuquerque can be.
"I love to compete. Man, I'm going to fight you tooth and nail to beat you," he said. "But I'm different than a lot of the guys out here. This is not my dream. It's what I know and it's what I do. And that's really it."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.
Brian Kortan says his only motivation is being the best PGA Tour, Nationwide Tour or mini-tour golfer a 5-3 guy from Albuquerque can be.