When Jason Widener was a teenager, golf came easily.
He won the USGA’s Junior Amateur championship in 1988, and followed it up by signing with Duke University, where he won medalist honors at the ACC Championship as a freshman in 1990.
Then everything changed.
“Three quarters of the way through my freshman year in college, my game really slipped, and I never really recovered fully,” says Widener. “I had played at an extremely high level where golf was very intuitive and natural, and the ball did what I wanted it to do.”
After a pause, he adds with a laugh, “Then it didn’t.”
Don’t feel bad for Widener though. He was a three-time all-ACC selection, and he went on to compete on the Nike Tour and play on the PGA European Tour. But in the end, he settled on teaching the game.
“The lifestyle isn’t for everyone,” Widener says. “It wasn’t fun to play with the golf game I had at the time. I can say now that I really have a love for the game again. It’s fun to be able to give back. It’s really worthwhile.”
Today, Widener teaches at both Duke University Golf Club and River Landing in Wallace, N.C. But his love for instruction goes a step further. He teaches martial arts at UNC Wilmington in the School of Health and Applied Human Sciences.
The martial arts are more than just a hobby for him. He teaches meditation and movement, which plays into the golf swing. So if you come for a lesson, you’ll do more than air out your irons.
“With the physical movements, the generation of power and the efficiency of movement, the principles are virtually identical,” he explains. “The way you choose to apply a calm, focused, concentrated mind is very similar. The way you direct your energy through a golf ball is very similar to the way you use energy in martial arts.”
Frank Gowarty brings his daughter, Savannah, for lessons with Widener. Gowarty can see Widener’s influence on Savannah, a high-school junior.
“(The martial arts) background appears instrumental in helping his students to create a strong coil that develops explosive power,” Gowarty says. “Since Jason’s first lesson with Savannah, her power and length increased dramatically, her miss-hits virtually disappeared, and her scores dropped from the mid-80s to the low-70s in a just a few months.”
Widener works with a variety of golfers, from aspiring pros to folks trying to win their club championships. But he’s found a niche working with young girls who are interested in playing in college. Widener knows all about the college game, having served as an assistant coach for the Duke men’s and women’s teams, and later as the head coach of the UNC Wilmington men’s program.
“I think I have a very positive perspective for them on what they’re getting themselves into and how much work it takes, and what that lifestyle will be like. It’s fun to help them get there.”
Part of the challenge is making sure the up-and-comers don’t succumb to the pressure that goes along with the higher stakes and increased expectations.
“People tell them, ‘You’re ready,’ and they start to feel the pressure, the tension that it causes,” he says. “A lot of times there is a physical reason we’re not performing at the level we’re capable, and it sometimes manifests mentally in a negative way.”
Widener knows a thing or two about losing the handle on the game. It’s not how he envisioned his career arch, but his struggles with the game have led him where he can help others.
“I know what it feels like to lose control of your ball,” he says. “I can help them to see how that happened and bring some self-awareness to the situation – and then see a path forward where it starts to be fun again. Then hopefully they generate that confidence and start to perform well again.”
If that’s his legacy in golf, Widener will take it. He was never fond of the touring life. He is happier as a family man. His daughters, a fourth-grader and a sixth-grader, have both hit balls, but neither is serious about the game.
“When I reflect on my golf career the memories are of playing with some excellence, and that’s really nice to have,” he says. “Now I have a wonderful wife and two wonderful kids and I get to spend a lot of time with them. For my life, the way things have worked out has really been fantastic.”