By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com Interactive Producer
The 44th PGA Professional National Championship will take place June 26-29, 2011, in the self-proclaimed -- and rightfully so -- "sweetest place on Earth," Hershey, Pa., home of the iconic chocolate company that bears the same name.
The history at the Hershey Country Club East and West Courses is just as rich as one of Hershey's milk-chocolate kisses. And it will get even sweeter when 312 of the best PGA Professionals in the country compete for one of 20 spots in the field for the 93rd PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club in August.
"Byron Nelson won the 1940 PGA Championship at Hershey Country Club, and two of Hershey's past head club professionals, Ben Hogan and Henry Picard, played at their peak while employed there," PGA of America President Allen Wronowski told PGA.com. "Hogan won 52 of his career 63 victories while associated with the club, and the Hogan Grill will be a most inviting stop for visitors at the National Championship.
"Picard and Hogan, what a great twosome in golf history. I cannot think of another club in the country that can boast back-to-back head professionals becoming World Golf Hall of Fame members," Wronowski added. "Hershey Country Club offers two wonderful venues, the East and West Courses, for the 44th PGA Professional National Championship."
Mike Small, the head coach of the University of Illinois men's golf team, heads to Hershey as the two-time defending PGA National Champion, and three-time winner overall. With his 2010 victory at the French Lick Resort in Indiana, Small joined the late Larry Gilbert as the only other three-time National Champions.
"It's pretty cool to be one of two people to have won this three times," Small said. "I aspired to be a Tour professional. I got on Tour and probably played 60 Tour events in my life and probably wasn't good enough to play those at that time in my life. To come here and have an opportunity to play against these names and these people and the records is an opportunity that I'm grateful for. Maybe that's why I play it so well. I'm grateful for this opportunity to play for this money, the records and the awards. This is a big deal to me."
So what will the players face at Hershey Country Club?
"Designed by Maurice McCarthy in 1930, the West is an older style, tree-lined course," said Sara Muldoon, PGA Head Professional of the West Course, which stretches 6,860 yards. "I think tee shots are going to be important in the PNC for the players. Position off the tee is key. On the greens, keep the ball below the hole on hole Nos. 5 and 12. A long-time standing member once told me that the greens don't break as much as you think and players should not read into the putts more than they think. Go with your gut feeling on the putting.
"The West Course will yield lower scores for the Championship. There are lots of scoring opportunities and players will be disappointed if they don't capture those opportunities on the West."
Over at the East Course, PGA Head Professional Simon Andres said the competitors are in for a great challenge at a place where low scores will be far more difficult to come by.
"On the East Course, all the greens are elevated and the holes are much longer," Andres said. "The professionals will have long and hybrid approach shots. The East is a very challenging stadium-style tournament course."
The East also features three sparkling lakes and more than 100 bunkers. If players inadvertently go looking for trouble, they'll quickly find it on the George Fazio design, which stretches 7,061 yards.
Ned Graff, the PGA Director of Golf at Hershey Country Club, is giddy about the opportunity to host the PGA Professional National Championship.
"To have the best of our profession playing here to determine the National Championship will be exciting, especially as it all unfolds," Graff said. "For the club to host a national championship is what our club has been trying to re-establish with a great tradition associated with Hershey Country Club. The West Course played hosted to the 1940 PGA Championship won by Byron Nelson during his magical 11 in a row. The West Course also hosted the LPGA's Lady Keystone Open for 17 years from 1988 to 1994. From 1997 to 2004, the East Course played host to the Reese Cup, a Nationwide Tour event. Our tradition for Championship golf is throughout our club's history.
"By hosting the PNC, we continue a legacy of hosting great championships."
And as for the 20 spots in the PGA Championship that are on the line?
"I think every PGA Professional has imagined the opportunity to make a putt to win the 'Championship,' but these 312 professionals are truly playing for what may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to play in a major Championship," Graff said. "It's a privilege to be a direct part of such an event. We plan for the courses to challenge the players so the cream will rise to the top and the best 20 players will represent our Association at our major championship, the PGA Championship."
Merion PGA Teaching Professional Mark Sheftic finished third at French Lick to qualify for his second PGA Championship in as many years.
"I think at Hazeltine in 2009 I learned more of a mental lesson than anything else," he said. "Because of that experience, I know what to expect this time around at Whistling Straits. Sure, it will be just as intimidating as it was at Hazeltine, but once you get your feet wet hopefully you can move forward. Hazeltine was an intimidating thing being on that grand stage. The whole deal is you go there and you try to learn from last year. The goal is to go out, have some fun and enjoy the experience. That's all you can do. I said before Hazeltine, 'I don't know if I'll ever make another PGA.' Now I've got two in a row. This may be my last PGA. I don't know, I don't care. I'll take it one day at a time and I'll cherish each of these moments."
Emotion and pride in sense of accomplishment will be as plentiful as chocolate in Hershey come late June -- by both the competitors and the PGA of America members.
"The low 20 scorers in a PGA Professional National Championship that earn a berth in the PGA Championship have elevated their games to the highest level," Wronowski said. "They have risen above their peers to compete later in the year as part of strongest field in golf. It is unquestionably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of those 20 PGA Professionals. The PGA Championship is our Association's premier event, and those 20 PGA Professionals have the honor and respect of their peers by representing The PGA of America in a major championship."