The PGA Championship

A major dream come true

For the 25 club professionals in the PGA Championship field, Oak Hill represents golf nirvana

By John L. Byrwa, PGA.com Managing Editor

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- While most of the players in the field for the 85th PGA Championship were busy honing their games in preparation for the season's final major, a handful of others were busy booking lessons, balancing books and helping Mrs. Smith pick out the perfect shirt to match her skirt.

Hardly the way you would choose to prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

But such is life for the 25 PGA of America club professionals who are fortunate enough to reach the ultimate goal of qualifying for their association's greatest event. And to hear them tell it, it ain't such a bad life after all.

"It's a tremendous opportunity, to come out here and play with the best players in the world," said Ken Schall, the head professional at Sunnyside Country Club in Waterloo, Iowa. "It's something we all look forward to throughout the year. We have our own qualifying process to get here, and it's just a great opportunity."

Schall should know. One of the more accomplished club professionals in the country, the 44-year-old seven-time Iowa PGA Player of the Year is appearing in his ninth major championship and seventh PGA Championship. He earned his coveted berth by virtue of his tie for 13th place at the 2003 PGA Club Professional Championship, where the top 25 finishers got an invite into the PGA.

Schall enters the PGA with a little bit of an advantage over his 24 club professional brethren here at Oak Hill Country Club. Not only did he play in the 1989 U.S. Open, which was also held at Oak Hill, but his caddie this week has arguably more local knowledge of the famed layout than anyone in the field.

Dave Masters, a rising senior at nearby University of Rochester, is a top player on the school's golf team who has played Oak Hill "25-30 times" in the past couple of years. "I got real lucky," Schall said of Masters, who was recommended to Schall by the Rochester golf coach, whose brother is an Iowa professional and friend of Schall's.

Still, all Schall's major championship experience and local knowledge can't hide the fact that, harsh as it might seem, club professionals cannot be expected to compete with Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia and the rest of the world-class players in the field. But compete they will, some with a goal of making the cut, others with more lofty aspirations.

"The tour players are playing competitive golf week to week to week and we have our responsibilities at our club from week to week to week," Schall said. "So it's a little different playing field, but nevertheless it's a big thrill being here.

"But some of us have the ability when we're at the very top of our game to play four rounds of golf out here. That's my goal for the week, to make the cut and do as well as I can do."

For Scott Porter, the general manager at The Bull Golf Club in Richmond, Ky., his first goal is to get off the first tee Thursday without embarrassing himself.

"I'm sure I'll be a little jingly, a little nervous on that first tee shot," admitted Porter, 33, who tied for 17th at Club Pro Championship to reach his first major event. "Luckily, I'm starting on No. 10 and I'm probably going to hit an iron. That shouldn't be too awfully bad there. But yeah, I'll be a little nervy on some shots, I'm sure."

In the hot New York sun Wednesday afternoon, Porter paused between hitting putts on the practice green and surveyed the scene around him. There was John Daly practicing his long putts. Robert Gamez was talking with a club rep over there, and Fred Couples was conducting a television interview nearby.

For a moment, a visitor almost felt like he had to pinch Porter to keep his attention.

"You look around and you're hitting balls next to Greg Norman on the range, it's just exciting to be here," Porter said with a shake of his head.

But for all the excitement the club professionals feel, they know some may not fully understand or appreciate what it took for them to get here. After all, if your name isn't Tiger or Phil or Davis, most golf fans have no idea who you are, nor do they give you much of a chance.

"No, I don't think they really do understand," said Alan Morin, like Schall a decorated player in his own right. "I heard a couple of them talking in the crowd -- and I'm not bashing anybody or anything -- but I heard them say, 'Ah, they're just club pros.' But if we're just club pros, how did we get here? I mean, think about how we have to get here. We're working six, seven days a week and we don't get a whole lot of time to play. I mean, we have to play good just to get here.

"So no, I don't think people really understand how great an accomplishment it is to actually make it into the PGA Championship because we have so much on our plate with running our golf facilities and taking care of our members and doing everything else."

On the other hand, many here do understand.

"I respect these guys because I know from Stan Thirsk, the fellow who taught me, a retired PGA pro, what type of love he has for the game and how he could play and how he did compete when he did get the chance to compete in the PGA, the U.S. Open," said eight-time major winner Tom Watson. "I know these guys can play. And given the chance, you'll see some very good scores from these guys."

Added Fred Couples, another former major champion: ""It's the PGA and the PGA of America and I know how they get in. Certainly, I didn't have to qualify, but it wasn't because there was a PGA club pro taking my spot. The best thing about it is I know a lot of them and they played the tour and now they're at a job and just to hear them say one thing about what a thrill it is to be in this or how much fun they’re having, that's unique."

Morin, 34, has had his share of major championship fun. The PGA represents his second major this year -- he qualified for the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields -- and his second straight PGA appearance. An assistant professional at The Falls Country Club in Lake Worth, Fla., Morin has also played in a handful of PGA Tour events, including Doral and the Honda Classic this season.

Morin was especially proud of his performance at the Honda, where he made the cut, which came at a PGA Tour record-tying low score of 6-under par, and shot 72-67 on the weekend to finish tied for 67th. But it is at Oak Hill where he hopes to make his mark.

"Absolutely I think I can make the cut," he said with authority. "We have to think that way. I mean, I'm gearing up and I'm ready to go. I'm excited and I'm confident that I can do it."

So are the rest of the club professionals here chasing their dream. And when it ends, be it Friday afternoon or Sunday evening, they'll go back to their respective clubs and reflect on how they accomplished a goal only a few can claim.

Even if they had to forgo an important practice session to help out with the junior clinic or help Mrs. Smith find a shirt that matches her skirt.

"I probably played 27, 36 holes a week, nine holes at a time basically," Porter said of his preparation for the PGA. "But when you're paying the bread invoices and paying the electric bill, it's hard to make time for golf."

Editor's Note: Check back to PGA.com during the PGA Championship to follow the progress of the 25 PGA club professionals competing in the 85th PGA Championship.

Western New York PGA SectionGreater Rochester Visitors Association, Inc.

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