2007 winner Chip Sullivan (left) and 2008 champion Scott Hebert have proven they can handle the pressure of this big event. (Photo: The PGA of America)
Scene and Heard: Players making final preparations
From past champions Scott Hebert of Michigan and Chip Sullivan of Virginia to first-timer Josh Hillman of Massachusetts, Twin Warriors Golf Club is a warm and welcoming place to be. Even as they bask in the unique surroundings, though, they're trying to tune their games for Sunday's crucial opening round.
By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com Interactive Producer
SANTA ANA PUEBLO, N.M. -- On the eve of the 42nd PGA Professional National Championship, players were strewn across the sun-soaked driving range at Twin Warriors Golf Club putting in their final preparations before the event tees off on Sunday morning.
With the Sandia Mountains providing a breathtaking backdrop, Greenfield, Mass., native Josh Hillman was beating golf balls into the distance.
This week provides a break of sorts for Hillman, the PGA Head Professional at Berkshire Hills Country Club in Williamstown, Mass., who was the 2007 and 2008 Northeastern New York Section champion and ’08 Player of the Year.
“Typically a work week is between 50-60 hours, sunup to sundown for six months,” Hillman said. “There’s not a whole lot of personal golf played. For example, we have one of our biggest tournaments of the year going on back at the club this weekend, so in the back of my mind, that’s really sitting there. I’ve got a great assistant and a great board, so they support me and support coming out here, but you still never let the job go. This is just a bonus for us.”
The 31-year-old Hillman is making his first appearance in the National Championship. He earned a spot in the 312-player field thanks to his Section win, but wasn’t able to make the trip to Reynolds Plantation even though he was eligible in 2008.
Competition is nothing new to Hillman. He played his college golf at the University of Rhode Island and was a member of several Atlantic 10 Conference and New England Championship squads. After turning professional in 2000, Hillman spent some time on mini-tours before working toward his PGA A-1 classification.
“You grow up playing junior golf and college golf, even mini-tour golf and the only thing you do is practice and play,” he said. “Now you have to come out here and be a competitor again instead of running the event as a club professional. You have to change your mindset a little bit and get yourself in the zone. It’s definitely a different mentality approaching tournaments. Even at home for sectional stuff; you have to stay focused when you go out to play. Since you don’t get to play a lot, you just have to depend on the basics and go from there.”
Hillman’s wife, Angie, who is five months pregnant with the couple’s first child, was scheduled to arrive in New Mexico on Saturday evening. He was looking forward to sharing the experience with her.
“Having her out here to watch me play in a major, so to speak, the National Championship is going to be great,” Hillman said. “That and the Mexican food. You can’t beat the green chiles.”
DEFENDING CHAMP: Scott Hebert was the unexpected champion of the 41st PGA Professional National Championship at Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Ga., a year ago, but only because of the situation.
A day after winning the Michigan Open on June 10, Hebert’s wife, Laurie, gave birth to Susie, the couple’s first daughter, who arrived one month early. Baby Susie didn’t leave the hospital until June 19, which was the first day of the National Championship, where her daddy fired a 67.
Hebert, the PGA Head Professional at Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme, Mich., hung around for most of the tournament and started the final nine holes trailing by three shots. That’s when he went birdie-crazy, crushing the field with five birdies over the next seven holes on his way to a one-shot victory over Sonny Skinner.
Not bad for a guy who was making just his second start in the National Championship after a tie for 13th in 2007.
Even still, Hebert isn’t resting on his laurels.
“It feels good coming into an event where I had success last year, but to me it’s another big event,” he said. “I’ll have some nice memories to draw back on, but we all start even when we go off tomorrow.”
While a win is special no matter the circumstance, last year’s victory was extra significant for Hebert, as it earned him a berth in the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, which happens to be in his home state of Michigan.
“Boy, it doesn’t seem like a year already, but it’s been a great year and it’s not over yet,” said Hebert, who missed the cut at Oakland Hills. “Playing in the PGA Championship at home was unbelievable. After this is over, I still have a few of those PGA Tour exemptions left. I’m pleased with how things went last year and with how this year is going. We’ll see what happens.”
As for the state of his game coming into the week, the 40-year-old Hebert likes where he’s at.
“I feel pretty good about my game coming into this week,” he said. “I’ve been putting a lot better than I have in a long time, I’m driving it OK, so I feel good about it.”
A FRESH FACE: It’s been a crazy seven days for Billy Hoffman.
The 28-year-old PGA Assistant Professional out of Westwood Country Club in Vienna, Va., should have been wearing bags under his eyes as he prepared to hit balls on the range at Twin Warriors.
Instead, he was sporting an ear-to-ear grin.
“It’s kind of funny,” Hoffman began to explain. “I went to my wife’s brother’s wedding last weekend and then got back from that, had our junior camps at the club, and then I left on Thursday to come here. So, the last couple of days mark the first time I’ve hit balls in about a week.”
Glamorous life, right?
Hoffman is making his National Championship debut thanks to a second-place showing in the 2008 Assistant Chapter Championship. Clearly one of the younger guys teeing it up, Hoffman was taking in the scenery, which, by the way, was quite different from what he left back home in Bethesda, Md.
“I’m from the East Coast, so the scenery is quite a bit different,” he said. “The weather is a little different, too. The ball is carrying a little further, so there are a lot of adjustments to be made out here. Everything is sinking in. I played a good practice round at Santa Ana on Friday, but I heard this one (Twin Warriors) is a little trickier.”
Though Hoffman is new to the National Championship experience, he’s very familiar with the goal, which requires a top-20 finish to earn a spot in the field at Hazeltine National Golf Club in August for the PGA Championship.
“Getting into the PGA Championship would be huge for me,” he said. “I’m like a lot of these guys -- that’s the goal. In the back of their mind, I think everyone out here would like to play out on the PGA Tour and half of them probably have, but it’s definitely a goal of mine.”
A BLUE CHIP: Chip Sullivan, the 2007 PGA Professional National Champion and Teaching Professional at The Country Club of Roanoke, Va., is hopeful that his appearance here in the Albuquerque area will yield a better result than in his title defense last year, which turned out to be a missed cut.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that the two courses -- Santa Ana and Twin Warriors -- stir up memories of the tracks Sullivan played on at Sunriver in Oregon on his way to that 2007 victory.
“These courses -- while it’s a lot warmer -- remind me a lot of Sunriver,” he said. “You’re still looking at a high altitude and you’re looking at limited trees, where you’re just trying to hit your targets. There are a lot of similarities. Depending upon the wind -- we had some wind at Sunriver and I’m sure we’ll have wind here -- they’ll have a lot of similarities. The rough is a little more severe here than it was at Sunriver, so that’s one of the things that I see different.”
Sullivan has spent a little time on the Nationwide Tour in 2009. In five starts, his best finish is a tie for 49th. He’d like to be playing better, but Sullivan thinks his time out amongst the touring pros could be beneficial.
“I think it’s starting to come around,” he said. “My short game is struggling a little bit. So, if I can get that down, which I was able to do two years ago at Sunriver, then I think I should be able to come out and compete this week.
“I remember the first of these PGA National Championships that I played in and how nervous I was. Of course I’m going to be nervous for this, but it’s going to be a different kind of nervous energy. I feel like I can compete on this playing field and if the putts drop, I might be up there at the top. I’m looking forward to an exciting week and I think on this golf course you’re not going to be able to win not hitting it well. The best man by Wednesday will win this event.”