Sturgeon grinds to Hazeltine; Benzel makes it look easy yet again
By T.J. Auclair, Interactive Producer- PGA.com
Editor's note: Each week leading into the PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club, PGA.com will profile some of the 20 PGA Professionals who qualified based on their respective top-20 finish at the 42nd PGA Professional National Championship in Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M. This is the fifth installment of the Drive to the PGA Championship presented by Mercedes-Benz.
ULTIMATE PERSEVERANCE: It didn't get much uglier than the start that 30-year-old Grant Sturgeon had in his National Championship debut.
In the first round at Twin Warriors, the PGA Assistant Professional from Oakmont Country Club shot a disappointing 8-over 79. While most players were practicing after their respective rounds, Sturgeon was doing that and also pricing out early flights home.
"I called the airlines to check and see how much it was to change the flights to go home two days early and luckily it was $1,000 so I didn't change them," Sturgeon.
Luckily is right. After that bumpy start, no player in the field was better than Sturgeon, who finished in a tie for eighth to punch his ticket to Hazeltine, over the remaining three rounds of the tournament.
Three rounds, you say? How did he even make the cut?
Sturgeon made the cut by firing the lowest score of the week on the Santa Ana course in the second round with an impressive 6-under 65 -- or, 14 shots better than the day before -- in an amazing round that included a hole-in-one on the 193-yard sixth hole and a birdie on the final hole to make the cut on the number at 2-over par.
"I was really happy to bounce back the way that I did," said Sturgeon at the time, still thinking it wouldn't be enough to advance to the final two rounds. "I think I'm going to be at least one, maybe two off the cut line, but I played so bad yesterday and I just wanted to go out today and try to make a birdie every three holes and, actually, 65 was my goal. To do that after such a disappointing day yesterday, at least it makes going home feel a little better."
Rather than go home, Sturgeon stuck around. With rounds of 4-under 67 and 2-under 69 in rounds three and four, he wound up with a 4-under 280 total and a spot in his first PGA Championship.
"I was about as down as you could be to come all the way to New Mexico from Pittsburgh and we all look forward to this event for the year after we've qualified through our section championship," Sturgeon said. "So to start the way I did was a huge downer. But it's a huge up now. It's just the difference from A to Z. I'm just glad I ended up on a high instead of a low."
THREE-FOR-THREE: At this point, PGA Teaching Professional Ryan Benzel from Battle Creek Golf Course in Washington State, probably figures that getting into the PGA Championship is easy.
Well, fact is, it's not easy. The 30-year-old Benzel knows that, but he just hasn't made it seem difficult over the last three years.
Thanks to a tie for fourth in New Mexico -- his third top-4 finish in as many tries at the National Championship -- Benzel is headed to Hazeltine to compete in his third consecutive PGA Championship.
"I love the Twin Warriors course, so I knew that I could go out here and play good and putt well," he said. "I'm just glad I did it."
Through two rounds in New Mexico, Benzel was at 1-over par and just one shot inside the cut line.
"Going off in the first group [in the third round], I knew we'd have like nine holes of perfect conditions since nobody was on the greens beforehand," said Benzel, who fired a 67 in Round 3. "Looking at the leaderboard [after 36 holes], I was only three shots out of the top 10. So I knew if I could play a good round, I didn't expect the other scores to go much deeper. A handful of guys under par is what I was expecting. I figured that if I could get myself into red numbers that would be good."
And that's what Benzel did, playing the final 36 holes in 6-under to finish at 5-under 279 for the week.
The top 20 finishers as well as ties at the National Championship each year receive an exemption into the event the following year. That's a concept Benzel truly enjoys because it allows him to avoid the stress of trying to get in through a sectional qualifier.
"I don't want to have to go back to my sectional qualifier, so if I can just keep qualifying at the National Championship, then I can just go to my section championship and play to win," he said. "I don't have that pressure of having to qualify."