By Robert Alan Richardson sports writer
When home-grown boys reach the pinnacle of their chosen profession, Morgan Countians rejoice and brag on one of their own. Add John Tillery to the list of rising stars. Tillery, a Professional Golfer’s Association (PGA) teaching professional has been a known commodity in golfing circles but with recent successes from one of his pupils, his teaching cache is climbing. Former University of Georgia golfer Kevin Kisner, who also happens to be married to Madisonian Brittany DeJarnett, has exploded on the PGA Tour this year.
Kisner, a student of Tillery’s, this past weekend finished second, and earned $800,000, in a thrilling three man play–off at the Tournament Player’s Championship in Sawgrass. Kisner lost on the fourth play–off hole to Rickie Fowler. Two weeks ago he lost to Jim Furyk in a play–off at the Heritage in Hilton Head. And the man behind the scenes is Madison’s own John Tillery. The 32 year-old father of two (Ethan and Eli) is married to the former Jennifer Kennedy. She is an elementary teacher at Morgan County Elementary School and is also a home town product who graduated from the Morgan County School System.
John and Jennifer still reside in Morgan County where he has a thriving teaching pro business he runs using Lane Creek Golf Club in Bishop, Georgia as his home base. According to Tillery, he has approximately 400 former and current golf students in his database, but caters more to the adult side and competitive juniors where he devotes most of his time. Tillery also runs golf schools and camps in the summer and short clinics for players as young as five–years–old throughout the year. From a young age Tillery knew he wanted to pursue golf as he excelled in junior golf and in high school competition at Morgan County High School. After graduation, he attended Kennesaw State College for two years on a golf scholarship and then transferred to Georgia College where he became an NCAA Division II All-American. He said he benefitted from his long-time membership at Cuscowilla Golf Resort on Lake Oconee where he honed his golf skills.
“It’s an extremely difficult course where I had to learn and practice many different shots, especially around the greens. It really helped sharpen and improve my short game.” He then pursued playing professional golf on two main mini-tours, the Hooters and Tar Heel circuits, with most of his tournaments being played on the Tar Heel Tour which is now the E-Golf Gateway Tour.
“I went into the mini-tours with no intentions whatsoever of becoming a teaching pro or golf instructor. I had some struggles of my own and began working with several of the top teachers out there while taking tons of golf lessons as well. I became obsessed with golf swing mechanics and why one guy would tell you one thing and another would tell you the exact opposite. I would continually ask myself why I wasn’t getting any better. My struggles out there and the changes I had to make in my golf swing to try and get to the next level really got me interested in teaching.” After he left the mini tours, his first big break came when PGA pro Blake Adams showed enough confidence in him to take him out as his instructor on the tour. The two had first become acquainted while golfing and competing against one another at Cuscowilla.
“He was the first guy to put his trust in me, and even though we have gone our separate ways, I owe him a lot for helping me get my foot in the door.” The next major step came when a former golfing opponent who attended USC Aiken, Scott Brown, asked Tillery to become his instructor in 2012. “We both knew each other from college so when he started showing some nice improvement he recommended me to his best friend Kevin Kisner in 2013. That was the beginning of what will hopefully be a successful career for me,” stated Tillery. He has since added two more PGA pro golfers to his resume in Lucas Glover (Clemson) about a year ago and Roberto Castro (Georgia Tech) six months ago. Two major events have shaped his path when Brown won the Puerto Rico Open to qualify for his PGA card and a second place finish by Kisner in the RBC Heritage and TPC tournament last weekend. “It was fun to watch and my phone was blowing up all day on Sunday.” He also instructs players on the various mini-tours, college golfers as well as the weekend warrior. The life he leads and the career he has pursued is a very fickle one that can lead people to believe that it’s all about fame, money, and glory. Not so for this talented instructor.
“I can’t stress enough that everybody has to make a living, but it’s not about the money for me. God’s got his own plan for all of us, so I’ve quit worrying about how long this will last or even if this journey will end. My time is split between teaching and being a PGA instructor so I spend about half of my time on the road with the pros. One week they might come to me at Lane Creek and the next week I might be in Aiken, South Carolina with Kevin or Scott. I could be almost anywhere in the country on a given week or weekend.” Tillery’s family usually only gets to attend events like Hilton Head or St. Simons due to school restraints for the boys and teaching obligations for Jennifer. It is obvious that family time is at a premium for this young man and the time away from home puts a strain on the entire family. “My wife is unbelievable, especially when I’m out of town. She has to be 10 people at once, teacher, Mom, taxi driver, and everything in between. I definitely over–married,” he commented with a laugh.
The PGA instructors are a tight-knit group according to Tillery. “It takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, hard work, and pure luck to get the breaks you need. Don’t forget that I only get paid when they get paid. Being a PGA instructor or professional golfer is under–appreciated and overrated because people don’t see the thousands of balls hit or swings watched and the time invested by the players, teachers, and instructors. People only see the glamor of the weekend or Sunday, but that’s just a small piece of the puzzle.” “Most of these guys are either my age or older who are already great players, so I have to instruct without overstepping my boundaries. Kevin is doing an awesome job. We set out with a blueprint knowing that if we stuck to the plan the results would come. Fortunately neither of us has strayed from that plan and it is paying off.” If you would like to schedule golf lessons with Tillery, he can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected], but the easiest method is to visit his website at www.johntillerygolf.com.