Skip to main content

Meet Tom Whitney: From nuclear missiles to PGA Tour

Getty Images

Update: Whitney shot 71-76--147, 5 over par and four shots above the projected cut line of 1 over.

LAS VEGAS – You’ll forgive Tom Whitney for being less than nervous on the first tee of his very first PGA Tour event Thursday at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

For starters, there weren’t Ryder Cup-style grandstands with screaming fans, leaving him a fairly calm environment.

He’s also had plenty of experience playing professional events on mini tours, PGA Tour Latinoamerica, and the Tour.

And he already knew his playing partners - Abraham Ancer and Andrew Landry - from his time in the minor leagues, so there wasn’t an opportunity to be starstruck.

But the primary reason Whitney didn’t sweat his first round on Tour was probably the result of the time he spent underground in a missile silo with his finger on the button.

Yes – THAT button.

Whitney, 28, was an intercontinental ballistic missile operator in the United States Air Force ... and that means exactly what you think it means.

“At F.E. Warren [Air Force Base], we have 150 nuclear missiles on alert at all times,” Whitney said.

“Our primary mission was to send the launch command if we were given the command from the president. Um, of course, we’ve never done that.”

And grateful we all are.

Backing up a bit, Whitney entered the Air Force Academy in 2006, was commissioned in 2010, and left the Air Force in May 2014 to finally pursue his dream of playing professional golf.

“My passion was a little bit stronger for giving myself a shot at this game than continuing in the military. Put it this way, if I didn’t have golf, I’d still be serving,” he says standing outside the clubhouse at TPC Summerlin, having just birdied the 16th hole before darkness suspended play Thursday night.

He will return Friday morning at 7:30 a.m., even par with two holes remaining in his first PGA Tour round.

Shriners Hospitals for Children Open: Articles, photos and videos

To be clear, Whitney didn’t just randomly decide to take up golf. He has always been able to play. He won five events while competing for the Air Force Academy’s Division I program and was in the top 25 of the individual ranking his senior year. He turned pro after college, knowing it would be four to five years before he could play full-time, and kept practicing as often as his day job would allow him while he was in the military.

Of course, he could only hit balls above ground, which was an issue during the 96 days a year he would spend underground.

Once he left the Air Force to take his shot at professional golf, he estimates he won eight mini-tour events and finished second nine times, a record both impressive and imperative for a mini-tour type with higher aspirations. He picked up his first victory on the E-Tour just seven days after departing the military.

Whitney and his family make their home in Fort Collins, Colorado. His wife Jessica, whom he met at the Academy, just transitioned to Air Force Reserves in July after spending seven years on active duty. The Whitneys have one boy, four-year-old Sky, one girl, two-year-old Zoey, and one more baby on the way. Whitney wears his children’s names on his golf spikes.

As for exactly how he wound up at the Shriners, Whitney made his way to PGA Tour Latinomerica in 2016, and earned his way to the Tour in 2017, where he made 8 of 15 cuts and recorded a season-best solo fifth at the Charity Championship. After finishing 89th on the money list, he was going to spend this week preparing for the second stage of Qualifying School next week in Texas as he attempts to regain his status, but ended up shooting a 9-under 63 to Monday qualify for the Shriners.

“The funny thing was, I was indifferent if I qualified or not,” he says with a smile. “My backup plan was to head out to TPC Craig Ranch for second stage. I was going to get four or five rounds in out there, just relax, enjoy the week, and now I’m hoping to fly out Sunday, and get a practice round Monday for the Tuesday start.”

Considering the winding road Whitney has taken to get here, it’s a detour he’s unlikely to mind.