Before it would become a member’s focal point on The PGA of America calendar, before it would secure the embrace of title sponsor Southworth, the Senior PGA Professional National Championship went through its own “growing pains.” The 144-player field that gathered in December 1989 in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., understood that it was a new opportunity, especially Stan Thirsk.
“I still remember that playoff and remember how excited and fortunate I was to win that year,” said Thirsk, a PGA Life Member from Overland Park, Kan. “The field was very strong and it felt great to come out on top in the very first one.”
A PGA member since 1957, Thirsk outlasted Bob Reith, of Sioux City, Iowa, by making a par on the second extra hole of a playoff to win the Championship.
Thirsk parred his last 10 holes, including a 20-footer on the 18th hole to force the playoff with Reith on the Haig Course at PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens. That piece of dramatics just validated his career blend of a talented instructor and player.
Thirsk’s love for the game and his ability to play and teach at a high level was evident, even as a child.
“I fell in love with the game at 12, and never looked back,” said Thirsk. “My whole life, everything I did revolved around golf and getting better each day.”
Thirsk was the PGA head professional at Kansas City (Kan.) Country Club when he won that national championship in 1989, a position he held for a total of 29 years, along with receiving the 1980 PGA Golf Professional of the Year award. He made the cut in 11 Senior PGA Professional National Championships, five PGA Championships and 10 Senior PGA Championships.
Thirsk, Tom Watson’s first instructor, reflects upon his famed student, who captured eight major championships.
“I remember the first time his father brought him out to see me. He told me to what I can do with him,” said Thirsk. “I was very impressed the first time I saw him that’s for sure.”
Thirsk noticed Watson had exceptional talent at a very young age.
“He never lost his balance, and he was only six years old,” said Thirsk. “Most kids that age struggled to even hit the ball and he and was able to hit it so crisply almost every time.”
Thirsk is very proud of the work he did with Watson and many of his other students, but admitted that he wishes he was able to compete and teach with the new technology and equipment that players have today.
“The players hit the ball so much further than we did back when I was playing,” said Thirsk. “It would have been nice to use the clubs and balls they have now and see how well I could have done. But I have no regrets, and am proud of what I have done in the game.”
Though Thirsk will not participate in this year’s Championship, a total of 264 players will compete in the 23rd edition of the Championship, Oct. 6-9, at Creighton Farms in Aldie, Va., and River Creek Club in Leesburg, Va.
This also marks the Senior PGA Professional National Championship’s first year of title sponsorship by Southworth Development, which has headquarters in Newton, Mass., and presenting sponsor Mercedes-Benz.
The National Champion will have his name inscribed on the Leo F. Fraser Trophy, while the low 35 finishers will qualify for the 2012 Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid, May 24-27, at The Golf Club at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Mich.
The top eight finishers, including ties, will receive exemptions into the 2012 Southworth Senior PGA Professional National Championship and the top five finishers will be exempt into the Champions Tour National Finals at TPC Scottsdale, provided they have submitted an entry by the entry deadline.
The field for this year’s Championship features nine past Champions, including defending champion Robert Thompson of Huntsville, Texas, Bill Britton (2009) of Rumson, N.J.; Jeff Coston (2006) of Blaine, Wash.; Kirk Hanefeld (2008) of Acton, Mass.; Tom Joyce (1990, ’91) of Huntington, N.Y.; Bill Loeffler of Castle Rock, Colo.; Ed Sabo (2000, ’01) of Tequesta, Fla.; Mike San Fillipo (2002, ’05) of Hobe Sound, Fla.; and Jim White (2004) of Lincoln, Neb.