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Yet Another Beginning

There’s an old saying in journalism: All news is local news. The best way to describe that theory is in a famous – if apocryphal – news lead: “Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who once flew over Trenton, died today.”

All of which explains the headline that ran in the sports section of Monday’s Newsday – which is Long Island’s local newspaper: “LIer Turnesa Finishes Fifth.”

The Long Islander in question, Marc Turnesa – who hasn’t lived anywhere near Long Island since he graduated from college 11 years ago – did indeed tie for fifth place on Sunday in the Transitions Championships in Tampa. Gary Woodland won his first PGA Tour event and qualified for the Masters. But Woodland isn’t an LIer – in fact he may never have even flown over Long Island.

Justin Timberlake and Marc Turnesa
Marc Turnesa poses with Justin Timberlake after winning in Las Vegas in 2008. (Getty Images)
All of that said, Turnesa’s tie for fifth is worth noting even for non-LIers because it represents another comeback in a career filled with them. Life as a professional golfer isn’t nearly as easy as the millionaires make it look and there’s no better example of that than Turnesa, who turned 33 last Saturday. He’s the son of a (Long Island) club pro, Mike Turnesa – and part of a distinguished golf family. He went to North Carolina State and turned pro after graduation.

That began a long journey that appeared to be over in October 2005 when he flunked the first stage of Q-School for a fifth consecutive year even though he shot 64 on the last day to almost rally and make the top 20 at the TPC of Tampa. He stood in front of the scoreboard that afternoon and watched the scores come in. When he knew he hadn’t made second stage he openly wondered if perhaps this was the end.

“There comes a point where you have to look in the mirror and wonder if maybe you just aren’t good enough,” he said. “You can’t rationalize forever: 'I was unlucky, I just need to putt a little better, I’m really getting close.' First stage isn’t close. Third stage is close. Even second stage shows you’re making progress. But first stage isn’t close. If you miss at first stage five times there might be a message in that.”

He smiled wanly. “The message might be that it’s time to find something else to do.”

Turnesa went home – to LI – to contemplate his future during the holidays and decided, since he had a place in Palm Beach he'd try the mini-tours for one more year. “That was going to be it though,” he said. “If I didn’t get something done that year, I’d be done.”

He played better that year, gaining some confidence in his putter and that fall finally broke through at first stage. Armed with new confidence he made it through second stage. Now, he could make the case that he was close. More important, even after he failed to get his PGA Tour card at the finals – he shot 81 the first day – he did earn a spot on the Nationwide Tour. Suddenly, he’d gone from nowhere to a step away from the PGA Tour.

A year later he was on the PGA Tour after winning the Miccosukee Championships, the last full-field event on the Nationwide Tour. That gave him enough money to make the top 25 and tee it up with the big boys in Hawaii in January of 2008.

Like most rookies, he had his ups and downs that year and was fighting for a spot in the top 125 – or at least the top 150 to retain partially exempt status – when he went to Las Vegas. Proving that one can get rich without setting foot inside a casino, Turnesa had the week of his life. He shot 25 under par for four rounds and won the tournament. Suddenly he was being escorted onto the 18th green at TPC Summerlin by two Las Vegas showgirls to accept a check from Justin Timberlake for $738,000.

Life was good. He had a two-year exemption and more money than he’d ever dreamed of having.

And then, as often happens on Tour, it all fell apart. He struggled throughout 2009, hitting it all over the lot, unable to find the putting touch he had found back on the mini-tours in 2006. He made just eight cuts in 30 events and his highest finish was 33rd (last place) at the Mercedes Championships. Fortunately, the two-year exemption protected him even after an awful year and he started 2010 knowing he had to get his act together to stay exempt in 2011.

He never really got the chance. Playing in Palm Beach, his ‘other’ hometown, he felt a twinge in his lower back as he warmed up for the Honda Classic. That was the end of his year. He entered 2011 on a major medical exemption, meaning he has 21 tournaments to earn $786,977 – the amount that Troy Merritt won last year to finish 125th on the money list. The fifth-place finish at Transitions puts him at a little more than $213,000 and should give him a confidence boost. It was his best finish since the win in Las Vegas.

Two weeks earlier, back at the Honda, he had been hopeful. “It’s taking longer than I had hoped but I feel like it’s in there somewhere.” He smiled. “Of course the hard part is finding it and getting it out when you’re on the golf course.”

He found something in Tampa. Keeping his card when the medical is over 15 tournaments from now suddenly went from looking impossible to looking like it can be done. Turnesa would certainly prefer that he make headlines in places other than Newsday.

But he knows Newday is a start. Someday, he hopes to do a lot more than fly over Augusta, Ga. Tampa was a beginning. Yet another beginning.