Club pros take their crack at the big time

By Doug FergusonApril 17, 2012, 9:59 pm

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jack Nicklaus recalls a time when the club pro and the PGA Tour player were not that far apart.

That was when several tour players also held club jobs, even if they were ceremonial positions. That was before golf became big business, when it went from the total purse being five figures to the winner's check being seven figures. When golf went from a way to make a living to a way to get rich.

''Can you imagine playing against Tiger Woods today, the average club pro trying to compete with him?'' Nicklaus said a few years ago. ''I used to play exhibitions, and the club pro, because he knew the course, had a chance to beat me. There isn't anybody who is going to beat Tiger or Phil or these guys today.''

Lonny Alexander can attest to that.

He is playing the Texas Open this week in San Antonio, and it will be newsworthy if he even makes the cut.

The 39-year-old Alexander is the teaching pro at Onion Creek Golf Club in Austin, Texas. He also teaches 10 beginning golf classes to 300 students at Texas State in nearby San Marcos. He won the Southern Texas PGA section championship, which earned him a spot in the field at the Houston Open last month and the Texas Open this week.

Unlike other pros in the field, this is not his day job.

''Spring is my busiest time of the year. I teach for a living,'' Alexander said Tuesday. ''You're almost sick about it. I've got to make a living, but I've got to get ready for these tournaments. The competitor in you says, 'Take off two weeks and practice.' The realistic side of you says, 'Hey, pards, you don't pay the bills that way.'''

Alexander shot rounds of 82-78 at the Houston Open to finish last, although three Tour players withdrew after high scores in the opening round. For them, there's always another week. For the club pro, these chances don't come along very often.

This will be the eighth time Alexander plays a Tour event, a tribute to how well he competes despite spending so much of his time giving lessons.

''I've had what people might call a lifetime of these experiences,'' he said. ''I wish I could give that spot to everybody who does what I do.''

For years, most Tour events reserved three spots for club pros in the area. That recently was reduced to one spot because the competition on the Tour became so great that the rank-and-file clamored for more playing opportunities.

It's important for club pros to be part of a Tour event. Most of golf's stars wouldn't be where they are without a club pro at some stage in their career.

The results, however, speak to the growing divide. In eight tournaments this year, none of the club pros have made the cut, or even come particularly close.

Then again, it's not exactly a level playing field.

''There's such a separation of where we are as competitors and where the pros are that play every week,'' Alexander said. ''That's no knock on what we do. We do a lot for the game. Our skill level as a club pro is higher than ever. But the skill level of the tour pro has gone through the roof.''

Bob Ford knows that better than most because he has lived through it.

He is going on his fourth decade as the head pro at venerable Oakmont Country Club, and he spends his winter as the head pro at Seminole Golf Club in south Florida. A year after he became head pro at Oakmont, he made the cut in the Bay Hill Classic. He twice finished among the top 40 in the U.S. Open and twice made the cut at the PGA Championship. There was a time he didn't feel out of his league.

Just like Nicklaus, though, Ford has noticed the widening gap.

''Back in the '60s, '70s and '80s, a lot of guys who were really good players decided to be club professionals, whether it was because there was not enough money, or they didn't want to leave their families,'' Ford said. ''There were a lot of opportunities to play as club pros. In today's world, most of those same guys choose to play full time because there's so much money.''

The more money, the greater the competition. PGA Tour fields are deeper than they have ever been. Arjun Atwal won in Greensboro two years ago after going through a Monday qualifier. The quality of athletes is greater than it has ever been. Most players - Masters champion Bubba Watson is a true throwback - have a trainer, nutritionist, mental coach, swing coach, or all of the above.

Todd Camplin is the 38-year-old head pro at Pinehurst No. 7. He won a Carolinas section qualifier and earned a spot in the Heritage last week, shooting 77-82.

''Fantastic,'' he said. ''Before I got into the business side of the industry, I tried to play for four or five years out of college and never got to play in a Tour event. It was a fulfillment of dreams, really. It gives you a lot of respect for the game that those guys bring to the table every week.''

Camplin estimates he played a total of 62 rounds last year - just more than once a week - including 35 rounds of competition in Carolina section events. PGA champion Keegan Bradley already has played 40 tournament rounds, and it's not even May.

For club pros like Camplin and Alexander, the ultimate is to get to the Professional National Championship, where the top 20 pros earn a spot in the PGA Championship. Four times in the last 15 years, none of the club pros made the cut at the PGA. The last club pro to crack the top 30 was Tom Wargo in 1992. He tied for 28th and the next year won the Senior PGA Championship.

Nicklaus is right when he talks about the growing gap between the Tour pro and the club pro. Or maybe he speaks from experience. Nicklaus competed against the resident club pro at Oakmont in the 1983 U.S. Open.

Ford beat him by four shots.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has three runner-up finishes in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.

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Fleetwood rallies to defend Abu Dhabi title

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 12:48 pm

The 2018 European Tour season has begun just as the 2017 one ended: with Tommy Fleetwood's name atop the standings.

Facing the most difficult conditions of the week, Fleetwood charged down the stretch to shoot a 7-under 65 in the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, good enough for a two-shot win and a successful title defense.

Abu Dhabi was the start of Fleetwood's resurgence a year ago, the first of two European Tour victories en route to the season-long Race to Dubai title. This time around the Englishman started the final round two shots off the lead but rallied with six birdies over his final nine holes to reclaim the trophy.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood was five shots behind countryman Ross Fisher when he made the turn, but he birdied the par-5 10th and then added four birdies in a five-hole stretch from Nos. 12-16. The decisive shot came on the final hole, when his pitch from the left rough nestled within a few feet of the hole for a closing birdie.

Fleetwood's 22-under total left him two shots ahead of Fisher and four shots clear of Rory McIlroy and Matthew Fitzpatrick. After entering the week ranked No. 18, Fleetwood is expected to move to at least No. 12 in the world when the new rankings are published.

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Garcia cruises to five-shot win in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 21, 2018, 12:10 pm

SINGAPORE - Sergio Garcia played 27 holes on the last day without dropping a shot to win the Singapore Open by five strokes Sunday in an ominous display of his newfound self-belief as he prepares to defend his Masters title.

Still brimming with confidence after claiming his first major title at Augusta National last year, Garcia started his new season with a runaway victory at the Sentosa Golf Club, finishing at 14-under 270.

Returning to the course just after dawn to complete his third round after play was suspended on Saturday because of lightning strikes, Garcia finished his last nine holes in 4 under for a round of 66 to take a one-shot lead into the final round.

With organizers desperate to avert the constant threat of more bad weather and finish the tournament on time, Garcia promptly returned to the first tee shortly after and fired a flawless 3-under 68, cruising to victory with 10 straight pars as his rivals floundered in the stifling humidity.

''It may have looked easy, but it wasn't easy. You still have to hit a lot of good shots out there,'' Garcia said. ''It's always great to start with a win, to do it here at this golf course against a good field in Asia on conditions that weren't easy. Hopefully I can ride on this momentum.''

Garcia's closest rivals at the end were Japan's Satoshi Kodaira (71) and South African Shaun Norris (70). Both birdied the last hole to share second spot but neither was ever close enough on the last day to challenge the leader.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

''I could not reach Sergio. I was thinking, 12 or 13 under for the win, but he went beyond that,'' Kodaira said.

Jazz Janewattananond (71) and his fellow Thai Danthai Bonnma (73) finished equal fourth at 8 under, earning themselves a spot in this year's British Open, while American Sean Crocker, who was given an invitation to the event after turning pro late last year, also won a place at Carnoustie by finishing in a tie for sixth.

Garcia made just three bogeys in 72 holes and his victory provided the 38-year-old with the 33rd title of his professional career and his sixth on the Asian Tour.

He has also won three titles in the last 12 months, including the Masters, and his game looks to be in better shape now than it was a year ago.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for Augusta National because of the steamy conditions and the testing stop-start nature of the tournament, which is regularly stopped because of inclement weather.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore a year ago, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

"I'm extremely happy with how the week went. It was a tough day and a tough week, with the stopping and going. Fortunately, the weather held on. Still, it was hard to play 27 holes under this heat and I can't wait to get a cold shower,'' Garcia said. ''I came with some good confidence and wishing that I will play well. I hit the ball solid the whole week and didn't miss many shots.''