CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Bryan Bigley is accustomed to getting up early and heading for the golf course. Only this time, he wasn’t firing up a mower or grabbing a rake.
Bigley was making his PGA Tour debut.
“I said, ‘Hi,’ to Jim Furyk and Stewart Cink on the putting green,” a beaming Bigley said Thursday. “They were probably asking, ‘Who’s this guy over here?’ If I didn’t have golf shoes and pants on, they’d probably think I was just out here working.”
The 26-year-old maintenance guy at a nearby golf course was still smiling even after his 6-over 78 in the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship. After all, it was a breakthrough for him after a move to North Carolina, countless hours on a mower, failed attempts at sponsorship and the constant scraping together of money to pay entry fees for mini-tours and qualifiers.
“He’s chasing his dream,” said his father, Rob Bigley, “and he was living his dream today.”
Bigley’s story illustrates the numerous obstacles to make golf’s big time, an accomplishment Bigley described Thursday as “a little slice of heaven.”
He and is brother, Rob Jr., spent a large chunk of their childhood at Pinehaven Country Club outside Albany, N.Y., where their father is the longtime course superintendent. Bigley played golf at Siena, saved some money and decided he needed to move to warmer weather to achieve his goal of making the PGA Tour.
He decided Charlotte, with a lower cost of living than Florida and which hosts numerous mini-tour events, would be a good fit. Bigley found an apartment, a job at a golf course and worked on his game.
Bigley works 12 out of every 14 days from 6-11 a.m. at Raintree Country Club in Charlotte. Then he plays. In his spare time, if funds allow, he enters lower-tier events.
But after three years, the money saved for his dream was running low. With no sponsors, Bigley didn’t have nearly enough money to enter PGA Tour qualifying school.
“It’s like his back is against the wall a little,” said his girlfriend, Brooke Barrows, a middle school teacher who works summers at the tennis shop at Raintree.
Bigley had failed to qualify for six PGA Tour events in three years. He said he missed making the Turning Stone event in New York by one shot and missed the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro by two strokes.
Monday was different.
After a 5-hour wait following his early round, he birdied the first two playoff holes to make the Quail Hollow field.
“There are a lot of guys who play the mini-tours for years who never get a chance to get inside the ropes in a PGA event, let alone an event like this one at a course like this,” Bigley said.
But there was much to be done amid the constant ribbing of people calling him “Carl Spackler,” Bill Murray’s colorful character in “Caddyshack.”
The first thing was to call his boss and say he couldn’t cut grass the rest of the week. Bigley then cut a deal with Jason Brodie, an unemployed Raintree member who carried his bag in the qualifier, to caddie for him.
“He said, ‘All right, I’ll give you a lunch and a beer,”’ Brodie said of the negotiations. “I told him, ‘Sold. I’m there.’ It’s been like a dream.”
Bigley then scrambled to get in a Tuesday practice round at Quail Hollow. It was the first time he played at the exclusive club about a 15-minute ride from his job.
“It’s not like I can call up and say, ‘I work maintenance at Raintree, can I come out and play?”’ Bigley said, smirking. “They probably wouldn’t even let me mow the greens over here.”
Now tournament officials were giving him a Mercedes courtesy car. That, though, produced a problem when he got to his house Wednesday night and remembered the garage door opener was still in his beat up Honda.
“I figured I could just sleep in the Mercedes,” Bigley said, “but my clubs were in the garage. I wouldn’t have been able to get at those.”
After two hours with a locksmith, Bigley finally got into his home at about 10 p.m. It wasn’t necessarily the best way to spend the night before your first PGA Tour event, but Bigley insists he slept well.
He teed off in a chill at 9 a.m. Thursday with Keegan Bradley and Justin Hicks. He parred the first two holes before a stretch of three bogeys in four. Bigley struggled with long second shots and putting on the difficult layout, finishing with five bogeys, a double and a birdie.
“One hole, I don’t even remember the number, I hit 5-wood in and I get up there and I had no chance of making a four. It’s just tough,” he said. “But I don’t think I’m out of it. I’m down there a ways but if I have a good round (Friday) I can hopefully get somewhere around even, 1- or 2-over and make the cut.”
His father and girlfriend will be in the gallery on Friday. So will dozens of Raintree members and employees – some of whom played out of the bunkers Bigley raked in his last day at work on Sunday.
“Being inside the ropes and have people cheer for you and clap and say, ‘Come on, let’s go!’ is really cool,” Bigley said. “For the last three years, this was the goal, to get to the PGA Tour.
“Now I’ve got a taste of it, I want to be back.”