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Wisconsin native Jerry Kelly has welcomed the 86th PGA Championship to his home state with open arms.
PGA Professional Bob Sowards enters the PGA Championship hot off his win at the 81st Sky Bank Ohio Open. (Photo: Montana Pritchard, PGA.com)

PGA Professionals teach their way to Whistling Straits

For PGA Professionals Bob Sowards and Robert Thompson, the road to the 86th PGA Championship at Whistling Straits started and finished at exactly the same place: the driving range, teaching newcomers the game of golf.

By Barry Pump, Special to PGA.com

KOHLER, Wisc. (PGA.com) -- The path to the 86th PGA Championship didn't pass through Castle Rock, Colo., and The International for two of the field of 156 players preparing to take on Whistling Straits.

For Bob Sowards and Robert Thompson, the path started and finished at exactly the same place: the driving range, teaching newcomers the game of golf.

Sowards and Thompson are two of 25 players at Kohler who qualified for the Championship through the 37th PGA Club Professional Championship held at Longaberger Golf Course in Nashport, Ohio, June 24-27.

While the tour players battled it out at Castle Pines, Sowards, the reigning CPC Champion, and Thompson finished up their lessons and youth camps and went about taking time off from their day jobs to play in the season's final major.

But the differences in schedules and routines between the two groups of golf professionals don't really faze either Sowards or Thompson, who still see the PGA as their tournament.

"Our job is to teach and promote the game," Sowards said. "Their job is to compete. It's business as usual for both groups."

"When the PGA Championship started, it was to give professionals the opportunity to compete," Thompson said. "You're still going to get your top 100 players in the world to be there, so I think it's great that 25 spots are for us."

Sowards, a PGA Assistant Professional at Wedgewood Golf and Country Club outside of Columbus, Ohio, did manage to fit in a nine-stroke victory at the 81st Sky Bank Ohio Open last Wednesday by shooting a 7-under-par 65 in the final round.

Sowards finished at 16-under for three rounds at Barrington Golf Club, so he knows that he's bringing his "A" game to Whistling Straits.

"I'm taking my good game up there," he said. "I know my game is up. Everything's shaping up perfectly to play well. I couldn't ask for anything more as far as course preparation."

Thompson, a PGA teaching professional, however, didn't even get a warm-up tournament, having finished three straight weeks of youth camps on Friday, and his 10th week of junior golf this season at Whispering Pines in Trinity, Texas.

"I hit a few balls and went out and played nine holes with the campers," Thompson said, "so I really haven't had a whole lot of preparation."

But Thompson does have one up on many of the other players taking on Whistling Straits for the first time: he's played the challenging links-style course before.

Thompson, who is competing in his third PGA, is one of seven club professionals returning to Kohler after the course hosted the CPC in 1999.

"I think getting to play the course as many times as I did is going to help," he said. "I never really got in the round I thought I could, and maybe this time I can. It's an extremely tough course."

Thompson said that Whistling Straits favors an accurate, long-ball hitter, in order to avoid all the trouble that can be found on every hole of this links-style layout.

"You definitely had to drive the ball well there with all the sand dunes and the rough," he said. "If they grew any more rough, I can only imagine how it'll play. Kohler's hard enough without a lot of rough, but it's going to be different than when we played."

While the course, located on the shore of Lake Michigan, is noted for strong winds, Thompson said that they weren't a major issue in 1999. However, he said, the fog that rolled in on the last day caused a five-hour delay that pushed the final round into Monday.

"I'm sure the players are hoping the wind doesn't blow," said Thompson, "but we didn't have a major wind factor."

Thompson said he's never played a course in Scotland, but added that Whistling Straits is a probably a well-groomed version of a British Open-style course.

"It has the same look, but I think the fairways are a little more forgiving," he said. "You're not going to get the bad kicks, and it's probably not as unfair as when you're playing the British Open."

Sowards, on the other hand, says he's never played a links course before, but through magazine articles knows the course's challenges.

"I know it's going to be unbelievably difficult," he said. "If I can hit it where I'm looking, I'll be all right."

And for Sowards, hitting the ball where he wants it to go has been a challenge he's recently overcome.

Sowards, who will be playing in his fourth PGA, has completely rebuilt his swing over the past three years, and he feels he's just now "reaping the benefits."

"I could never be competitive, and I couldn't repeat the swing under pressure," Sowards said. "So I completely tore it apart and rebuilt it. I can hit where I'm aimed now."

Thompson hasn't recently made ground-up changes to his swing, but he says that the lessons he teaches have helped him pay more attention to the fundamentals of his own game.

"It keeps you thinking about what you're doing in your swing," he said. "You're teaching how to chip, putt and pitch, so you're working with the fundamentals and showing them how to do it and it helps."

So while their road to the PGA didn't wind through weeks of nonstop tournaments, Sowards and Thompson may just have an advantage by doing their job -- teaching the game.

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