"Santa" golfer playing in the Golf Channel Am Tour senior national championships at PGA West

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LA QUINTA, Calif. – I couldn’t believe my eyes.

There he was - Santa Claus - in the middle of the California desert with a putter in his hand, competing in the Golf Channel Am Tour senior national championships on the Arnold Palmer private course at PGA West.

It seems Bryan Austin was born to be Santa Claus. He’s got the lush white beard. He’s got the belly. He’s got the jolly laugh down pat. 

Best of all, unlike most white-bearded Santa-wannabes, he has lived in the North Pole. Austin grew up in North Pole, Alaska. He lives in Highlands Ranch, Colo., now and has been a “professional” Santa in the greater Denver area since 2008.

“It is a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s all about making memories. When the parents bring their children to get pictures of Santa, they are remembering their childhood, the hope, the anticipation of a new year, and, of course, the gifts.”

Austin grew up in the North Pole with two brothers. He has experienced whiteouts and 75-below-zero temperatures and seen the northern lights. He was one of 16 seniors in his graduating class at the North Pole junior/senior high school in the 1970s. He later earned a degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Arizona (“so yes, I do know how to make Reindeer and a sleigh fly”, he writes on his Website, www.SantaBryan.com).

When his beard began turning white in his 40s, his Santa persona was born. That was right about the time he began taking golf more seriously.

“Santa has to do something during vacation,” he said, adding a smile. “It’s my exercise. I like competition. When I started I didn’t know a good course from a bad one. The Golf Channel Am Tour has taken me to some awesome courses. I’ve seen some views the last four years I never expected.”

He said he’s always been successful at sports – football, wrestling, soccer – but not golf. “I was a wreck,” he admitted. “That’s when I realized that in all of the other sports I had a head coach.”

He began taking lessons at a local GolfTEC, and dropped his scores from roughly 125 to the low 90s. His best finish this year on the Am Tour was a second-place finish in the Highlands Ranch Open in August. He is competing in the Senior Jones flight (for handicaps 16.0 to 19.9) at PGA West. The 72-hole, stroke-play competition began Friday and ends Monday when national champions are crowned in six flights.

Come November, Austin won’t have much time to play golf. He said he’s got 88 hours of private parties already booked. “It will get crazy,” he added.

He regularly performs an animated reading of the story “‘Twas the Night before Christmas”. And he loves to tease parents about the lumps of coal they get every Christmas. “Most people say they burn them. I ask ‘Did you not pass high school chemistry? What do you get when you apply pressure to coal?’ Diamonds,” he said. “I’ve been giving you a fortune all these years.”

Thanks Santa. All most golfers want is a new driver and a couple dozen balls.