PGA Professionals fit in with best at Oak Hill
By Rachel Cohen, The Associated Press
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Last time Rob Labritz checked, the YouTube video of the shot of his golfing life had more than 7,000 views.
He isn't sure that quite counts as viral, but the way he qualified for his fourth PGA Championship has Labritz seeing good omens everywhere.
Labritz is one of the PGA Professionals who earned spots this week at Oak Hill by finishing in the top 20 at the PGA Professional National Championship in Oregon in late June. He and three others were competing in a playoff for the last spot when he holed a wedge shot from 95 yards.
His wife is eight months' pregnant and his mother was declared cancer-free just last week, so why shouldn't he set a goal for a top-15 finish?
''I just want to keep riding the wave,'' Labritz said Wednesday, a day before teeing off in the first group of the PGA Championship.
For these 20 PGA Professionals, golf is their job, but they often work on everything but their game. Rod Perry, who won this year's PGA Professional National Championship, estimates he maybe plays once a week.
''I might play on a Friday afternoon with one of the member's groups, or I might play in a section event maybe on a Monday or something like that,'' said the 39-year-old Perry, the head professional at Crane Lakes in Port Orange, Fla. ''But I know there was a couple stints over the winter where two or three weeks would go by and I wouldn't play at all.''
Mike Small's job carries different demands but the same conundrum - a lot of time around the course but not much playing. He's the men's golf coach at the University of Illinois, the runner-up at this year's NCAA Championships.
Small played a practice round Wednesday with former Illini teammate Steve Stricker and one of his former players, Luke Guthrie.
Small has a much longer playing resume than many of his competitors in Oregon -- he was on the PGA Tour in the 1990s and is in his ninth PGA Championship and 12th major. He was the low PGA Professional in 2007 and '11.
Still, this is just Small's third tournament of the year as a player. He'd like to practice more with his Illini, but it often just doesn't work out.
Since qualifying in late June, he's held two camps and hit the road for three recruiting trips.
However rare, entering tournaments is worth it. The competition. The break from the routine of the job. The chance to learn from the best players and toughest courses.
''It's part of who I am,'' Small said.
Oh, and it doesn't hurt in recruiting.
''It differentiates us from other teams. Each program has its own niche, and this is ours,'' he said, an orange ''I'' plastered on his cap, shirt and bag.
Labritz generally plays in 10-15 events a year. The owners and members at GlenArbor in Bedford Hills, N.Y., about 45 miles north of New York City, enjoy seeing him representing the club well.
''I've got probably one of the best jobs on the planet,'' he said. ''They allow me to play and practice as much as I feel I need to keep my game at the highest level.''
But a berth in the PGA Championship looked unlikely on the second playoff hole June 26. Six players had started the playoff for three spots, and two qualified with birdies on the first hole.
Labritz then found himself with a bad lie when his tee shot landed in a fairway bunker. He had to punch out while the other three played onto the green on the par-4 11th at Sunriver Resort.
He wound up being the only player to birdie the hole. Labritz celebrated with a swinging fist pump and leaping high-five, a clip that made its way onto ESPN.
Labritz received thousands of emails of congratulations and admiration through his website, many from people he'd never met.
The only PGA Professional to make the cut at the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, this acknowledged late bloomer is confident he can compete this week at age 42. He played a practice round Tuesday with Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley and Jason Dufner.
''You know what?'' Labritz said. ''There wasn't any difference.''