PLAYA DEL CARMEN, MEXICO | With the sun drenching the Riviera Maya behind him, Kristoffer Ventura answered a string of questions in Spanish and then sat down in a director’s chair for a quiet moment alone. If you had only walked onto the patio when the English portion of the conversation began a few moments later, Ventura could have fooled you into thinking he was born in Peoria, Ill., instead of Puebla, Mexico.
That’s the type of mixed accent you get when you have lived in three countries, each for at least a half a dozen years, and visited around 30 of them. For this week’s Mayakoba Golf Classic, the 24-year-old former Oklahoma State standout who is six starts into his rookie season on the PGA Tour is returning to the origin of his story. Ventura didn’t grow up close to the floating palm trees of Playa del Carmen – it would take about 19 hours to drive to what was once his hometown on the outskirts of Mexico City – but he did spend the first 12 years of his life in the country. It’s where his father, Carlos, a Mexican veterinarian, and his mother, Charlotte, a Norwegian architect, sacrificed so their son could dominate junior events not long after receiving a set of plastic golf clubs for Christmas when he was 2 years old.
To play a PGA Tour event in his native country is a surreal reminder of what it took to make it here.
“Being here with a PGA Tour card and knowing that my family is going to be here, my grandfather, he has never seen me play professional golf, so it’s just extremely special,” Ventura said. “The past year feels like it has been five years. It’s happened so fast, but it doesn’t seem like it … people only see the good stuff, the times when you are holding a trophy or clinching status. But they don’t see the struggles.”
The obstacles Ventura references and his immense capacity to adapt to change puts him in a different category of professional golfer. In the same way he moved from Mexico to Norway to Oklahoma in the span of six years so he could develop his game – by the way, he became a fluent speaker of three different languages and is currently learning Italian and German for fun – Ventura hasn’t been shy about taking on growth opportunities. He’s had to face some pretty substantial ones to get where he is now.
After the move from Mexico to Norway, Ventura represented the European team during the 2010 Junior Ryder Cup and played well for Norway during two World Amateur Team Championships. Knowing he wanted to play college golf for a chance to develop further, Ventura originally committed to Arizona State before reopening his recruitment. Alan Bratton had just taken over as Oklahoma State’s head coach when he got a call from close friend and Ohio State head coach Donnie Darr, who convinced Bratton to watch Ventura play. Darr, now an assistant at Oklahoma State, didn’t have a scholarship available at the time to offer Ventura.
Bratton took Darr at his word and traveled to Scotland to watch Ventura play in the European Boys’ Team Championship. On the same day, Bratton saw another Norwegian, Viktor Hovland, who would eventually partner with Ventura to form what would be the core of Oklahoma State’s 2018 NCAA Championship team.
“That day was a huge shift for our program,” Bratton recalls. “I loved what I saw from Kris that day. You could immediately tell what a good kid he was in addition to the talent he has for the game of golf.”
Despite winning multiple college tournaments and being first team All-Big 12, the 6-foot-3 Ventura felt small and forgotten when compared to his highly touted teammates Hovland and Matthew Wolff. Ventura turned professional in the summer of 2018 to little fanfare. He missed the cut in a couple of PGA Tour events into which he had received sponsor exemptions and posted a pair of top-10s on the European Challenge Tour, but a trip to Korn Ferry Tour Q-School was inevitable.
There are technically four stages of Q-School if you include the pre-qualifier, in which Ventura had to compete just to advance to the first stage. He then got through the first and second stages to earn Korn Ferry Tour membership. A respectable finish at the final stage would give him a strong priority ranking for the 2019 season.
The only problem is that Ventura woke up 10 days before the tournament writhing in pain. It was appendicitis, a condition that typically can’t be played through or managed with painkillers. A further problem was that Ventura was required to hit at least one official shot at final stage to maintain his Korn Ferry Tour membership. And perhaps most importantly, playing well would set himself up for a better shot at the PGA Tour.
“In Norway, we got to travel around everywhere and train at no cost. … If I would have stayed in Mexico, who knows what would have happened, because we didn’t have the resources to do all that. Looking back, my family made the right decision for me.” – Kristoffer Ventura
He had surgery a week before the tournament started and decided that he would play all four rounds during the time that most people would be recovering. Ventura completed all 72 holes, shooting 71-72-75-68 to finish dead last. The display of character almost outweighed the sting of being at the back of the line for priority into Korn Ferry Tour events.
Unable to get into most tournaments, Ventura tried about a dozen Monday qualifiers and was successful only once. Realizing his strategy might not be successful, he briefly went to the European Challenge Tour. On a few occasions, he even dabbled on the Minor League Golf Tour.
It was only after accepting a sponsor exemption into the Korn Ferry Tour’s BMW Charity Pro-Am near Greenville, S.C., that Ventura’s luck started to change. The event was shortened to 54 holes due to weather, and he finished in a tie for third. A top-10 normally grants players an exemption into the following tournament, but Ventura endured a little bit more bad luck when a misunderstanding about his commitment to play – apparently it has to be confirmed within 30 minutes of the previous event ending – resulted in one fewer Korn Ferry Tour start. Regardless, his play in South Carolina released some of the pressure, and Ventura went on to win the Utah Championship and the Pinnacle Bank Championship to secure his PGA Tour card.
“He showed incredible maturity through all of that,” Bratton said. “And he was smart about his schedule, too. Most guys try to play every single week, but he took time off and trusted that he would play well when he played.”
Reaching the PGA Tour as a rookie is not necessarily a time of reflection, but Ventura enjoys looking back to connect the dots. His time winning tournaments as a youngster in Mexico made it apparent he had skill. Staying there, however, may have impacted his prospects for developing into the player that fought his way here.
“In Norway, we got to travel around everywhere and train at no cost,” Ventura explained. “It was all funded by the Norwegian Federation. If I would have stayed in Mexico, who knows what would have happened, because we didn’t have the resources to do all that. Looking back, my family made the right decision for me.”
It’s all led him back home. And wouldn’t you know, Ventura is paired with one Norwegian in Hovland and one Mexican in Alvaro Ortiz for the first two rounds. It’s yet another reminder that all of the elements had to converge for Ventura to become the player he is now.
Kristoffer Ventura moved from Mexico to Norway to Oklahoma in a span of six years to help develop his game. Photo: Cliff Hawkins, Getty Images
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