Time to expand field of club pros
KIAWAH ISLAND, SC -- This the PGA Championship, a showcase of the best the PGA of America has to offer. But where are all of the PGA professionals that this tournament was supposed to be about? Out of 156 players in the field, there are only 20 considered PGA club professionals.
That's not enough.
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I understand the difference between the tour pro and the club pro, and so does the PGA of America. They saw the gap between the two as early as 1968 when they created a separate national championship just for the guys who are out on the ranges across the country teaching the masses the game of golf.
This year, Matt Dobyns won the PGA Professional National Championship. He's the head pro from Fresh Meadow Country Club in Lake Success, N.Y. (I couldn't make that name up if I wanted to.) Dobyns' victory came at the Bayonet and Black Horse Golf Courses in Seaside, Calif. The Walter Hagen Cup, given out to the club pro champion, has names like Sam Snead, Bob Rosburg, Bruce Fleisher and Larry Gilbert attached to it.
So why didn't you know that and why hadn't you ever heard of Matt Dobyns?
Since the PGA Championship and the PGA professional championship became two separate events more than four decades ago, the best a PGA professional has ever finished in this major is third. That happened twice: Tommy Bolt in 1971 at PGA National and Snead in 1974 at Tanglewood GC in North Carolina. Neither was considered "touring pros" by that stage in their careers.
Since 2000, the best finish by a PGA club pro was a tie for 31st, in 2004. Chip Sullivan achieved that feat.
In 2003 and 2008, no PGA club pro made the cut, and since 2006 no one has finished better than 68th. That being said, I am a fan of Cinderella. I like the guys who have to sell the shirts and set up the outings, getting a chance to play against the guys they once dreamed of being next to on the driving range.
When I asked Bob Sowards, head professional at New Albany (Ohio) Country Club, which job was harder -- being a tour pro or a club pro -- he answered with no hesitation.
"Club pro by far," said Sowards, who tees off Thursday in Round 1 of the PGA Championship with PGA Tour pros Bryce Molder and Matt Every. "As a tour pro, you see the hard work pay off. As a club pro, that's not always the case."
Telling words from a guy who's been on both sides of the counter. Sowards played in 35 career PGA Tour events and made 11 cuts. That includes 22 starts in 2008, with nine cuts made.
Just because club pros haven't achieved any great finishes doesn't mean there aren't flashes of greatness there.
In 1969, Don Bies dropped a 64 in the second round at NCR Country Club in Ohio. That same year, Jimmy Wright shot 279 over four rounds and finished fourth, still the lowest four-round total ever shot by a PGA pro. Jay Overton fired a 66 in Round 2 back in 1988 at Oak Tree Golf Club in Oklahoma. Maybe not something you talk about every day in the golf media, but I bet at their home courses it's mentioned at the 19th hole.
It's hypocritical to continue to say we need to grow the game of golf, yet on one of golf's four biggest stages we shrink the number of people actually bringing this game to the public. The U.S. Open and the Open Championship give anyone with a low enough handicap the opportunity to play their way into the fairy tale, so why not the PGA?
Yes, the chance of a guy winning a major who on Monday or Tuesday will be back setting up a best-ball shotgun tournament for the one-foot-in-the-ground-retirement-community's over-85 group is slim. But taking away more of those Cinderella opportunities won't grow the game. It will shrink it.
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2012 PGA CHAMPIONSHIP
In recent months, Rory McIlroy admitted he heard the questions about his game going south. After Sunday's record-setting win at the PGA, those critics have been silenced. Gene Wojciechowski
2012 champion: Rory McIlroy
Course: The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island
Where: Kiawah Island, S.C.
Yardage, par: 7,676 yards, par-72