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No promises

Winning the PGA Professional National Championship is a clear indication that a player is at the top of his game. But as several past champs can attest, winning once brings no guarantees that they can repeat their feat.

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The PGA Professional National Championship is "the one event that I really care about," says 2002 champion Barry Evans. (Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America)

By John Kim, PGA.com Coordinating Producer

HERSHEY, Pa. -- There were 10 past champions in the field for the 2011 PGA Professional National Championship. And though winning the Walter Hagen Cup guarantees you an invitation back every year, it by no means makes competing and succeeding each successive season any easier.

“This is the one event that I really care about,” said Barry Evans, the 2002 champion. “I know that people expect past champions to play well, but most don’t understand how tough it is here. There’s great players here every year.”

Evans, the PGA Head Professional at Berry Hills Country Club in Charleston, West Va., shot 72-72 and ended up missing the cut by one shot. 

“It hurts,” Evans stated. “I’d rather miss the cut by 10 than by one.  I know that my friends, the members at our club, the PGA, the media -- they all expect a certain level of performance from me. But I can tell you, no one puts more pressure on me than I put on myself.  The benefits of being a past champion, the recognition, the Champions Dinner every year, the exposure -- those are great. But I still come here to play my best.  I still have some good golf left, so that makes this disappointing, but I’ll be back.”

To illustrate the competitiveness of this championship, consider: In 43 previous National Championships, there have been 37 different winners. Two players, Larry Gilbert and defending champion Mike Small, have won three times each. Only three players have won back-to-back (Small (2009-2010, Gilbert (1981-82) and Roger Watson (1974-75). 

“It’s a double-edged sword,” agreed Scott Hebert, the 2008 champion. “There’s definitely a different kind of pressure. There are so many great things, besides the obvious, about winning. But I think you can press a bit, you know people are looking at you a little different when you arrive. The expectations are just higher. You understand that but you try not to let that affect your preparation or play.”

Hebert, the PGA Head Professional at Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme, Mich., opened with a 1-over 72 on the East Course on Sunday but battled back with a 4-under 68 on Monday to comfortably make the cut and contend for one of the 20 spots in the PGA Championship that will go to the top 20 finishers.

"It's definitely not a given," said 2007 champion Chip Sullivan of the ntion that a victory leads to continued success. "I think the depth of talent is pretty evident, and only a quarter of the field makes the cut. You've got to be on all facets of your game.”

Sullivan, the PGA Director of Golf and General Manager at Hanging Rock Golf Club in Salem, Va., has made the top 20 and earned an appearance in the PGA Championship in two of the last five years, but missed the cut in the other three.

"Being a past champion means so much to me personally and professionally,” he said, “but it doesn't really help once we tee it up each year."

And though expectations rise for past champions, sometimes the focus after winning can wane.

“I’ve been playing in this event since 1994, give or take a couple of years in between where I missed for various reasons,” said 2006 champion Ron Philo Jr.  “I remember wanting to win so bad, kept getting close, kept getting close and then finally, the door opened and I won in 2006.  And I’ll always have that, I’ll always be a champion of this event. 

“But I think winning does change your perspective. The hunger is still there, the desire to play well, to win, to finish in the top 20 -- but it’s not as consuming for me,” he explained. “It’s actually ironic, but when you win, you get opportunities that you may not have had before. Great opportunities, not just playing but in the working end of the industry. And that can take away from the focus you have on being a competitive golfer.”

Philo, the PGA Director of Golf at Stowe Mountain Club in Stowe, VT, shot 74-71 (+2) to miss the cut.

“I’m disappointed that I didn’t play well enough this week, but my outlook is still good,” smiled Philo.  “I don’t know if that’s a by-product of already having won, or just priorities change as life happens, probably a combination of both, but I’ll go home, enjoy my job and family and when the time comes to get ready for next year, I’ll be as ready as I can be.”