By John Kim, PGA.com Coordinating Producer
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- Which golfer is going to have the loudest, most enthusiastic, most loving following at Atlanta Athletic Club for this week's 93rd PGA Championship? Rory? Tiger? Phil? How about Craig?
Try Craig Stevens. A 50-year-old PGA teaching professional from Steel Canyon Golf Club in nearby Roswell, Ga.
"It's amazing, it really is," Stevens says about the support and encouragement he is receiving from the hometown crowd. "I have family, friends, students, neighbors and even people I don't know, just showing me so much love everywhere. It's incredible."
Stevens is the only Georgia-based PGA Club Professional of the 20 that qualified via their performance in the PGA Professional National Championship in June in Hershey, Pa. Even more, because he also qualified for the 2001 PGA Championship -- held in this exact same spot, Atlanta Athletic Club (where he shot 73-76 and missed the cut) -- he has become a media darling and sentimental favorite.
So as one of the underdog PGA Club Professionals, hometown hero for the state of Georgia, flag-bearer for the 50-and-older crowd and oh by the way, the club professional who is returning to the site of his first PGA Championship appearance 10 years ago, it's easy to see why Stevens has been thrust into the spotlight.
"CBS, Golf Channel, PGA.com, they've all been so great," he laughs as he recites the national media outlets he's been featured on. "It's been so fun, I'm really enjoying it. Soaking it in."
That appreciative attitude is playing a special role this week for Stevens.
"My first time here, in 2001, I wasn't young then but it was so new to me, a major championship, that I was just a bit overwhelmed I think," Stevens says of his time at Atlanta Athletic Club during the 2001 PGA Championship. "I had played a few Tour events and such, but this is just something else. I think 10 years ago, I didn't appreciate it the way I could have. This time, after the last few years of my life, it's a totally different experience for me. I'm really taking it in, sharing it with my family. I'm here to do a job, I want and expect to play well. But I'm going to enjoy this, too."
'Enjoy this, too' means having those closest to him share in the experience. Stevens' caddie for the week is his son Chase, a good player who knows his father's game and the nuances of golf enough to be both a friend and a professional on the bag. Also supporting him all week will be his daughter Caitlin, a soon-to-be freshman golfer at Reinhardt College as well as a handful of other close family members who will be making the trek around Atlanta Athletic Club for (hopefully) all four rounds.
Additionally, other fans and television viewers may see "Team Lumpy" shirts being worn by many in the gallery. The affectionate nickname for Stevens has caught on amongst the local golf fans, and one group has vowed to show their affection by donning the shirts each day.
"For most of the last four or five years, I just really wasn't playing well," Stevens relayed. "I had to make a decision, if playing golf on the Champions Tour was a goal, which it was, then I had to get serious about my golf. So I did. And I've worked hard, real hard. And now, I have conditional status on the Champions Tour. And I'm back here, playing in the PGA Championship. It's a good reward for a lot of hard work."
But make no mistake, just being here isn't his goal for the week.
"I know I can compete and I can make the cut," Stevens says assuredly. "I'm hitting the ball well, I just need to play smart, manage my game. You know, with the way golf equpiment is nowadays, I don't really hit the ball any shorter (if at all) than I did 10 years ago. So the lengthning of the course doesn't really bother me. Now that said, the younger guys sure hit the ball a lot further than the younger guys did 10 years ago. So I might be 30 or 40 yards behind some guys off the tee, but there's no hole out here that's too long for me. I'll be fine."
The entire week has been fine thus far for Stevens. It's been a long journey to get back to where he was a decade ago. But Craig Stevens isn't the same golfer or the same guy he was back then. And with his family and friends surrounding him, his game as good as it’s been in a long time and his future and mindset brighter and brighter -- the hometown hero is ready to make his triumphant return.