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PGA Club Professional Bill Britton, who had Thursday's only eagle, is tied for second, just one shot behind leader Jay Haas. (Photo: The PGA of America)

PGA Club Professionals not simply happy to be here

By John Kim, Coordinating Producer

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- The time for congratulating the 38 PGA Club Professionals for making the field for the 69th Senior PGA Championship has passed. It officially ended at 7:30 a.m. ET Thursday, when play started at Oak Hill Country Club and the competitive fire flared up once more and thoughts turned from "just happy to be here" to "here to compete, here to win."

"My goal is to do the very best that I can on every shot," said Bill Britton, the PGA Director of Instruction at Twin Brooks Golf Center in Tinton Falls, N.J., whose even-par 70 was the low score among the PGA Club Professionals in the field.

Britton, who had the only eagle of the day when he knocked a 9-iron shot from the fairway into the cup on the 16th hole, is tied for second, just one shot behind leader Jay Haas.

Britton is accustomed to championship golf, having played on the PGA Tour for 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s. But he says playing in a major championship as a PGA Club Professional can be an advantage.

"I wouldn't say there's less pressure, but it's a different kind of pressure," he said. "I think when you play for a living, golf can really consume everything you do. ... I know after a bad round, it used to sit with me a long time. Now, if you have a bad round, you still feel bad, but it gets better quicker. When you go to work the next day, it's pretty much done."

Despite the inherent difficulties in maintaining a world-class level of play while still fulfilling their fulltime jobs, each of the PGA Club Professionals in the field was able to compete for senior golf's most prestigious championship based on one common factor: They earned it via great playing. And each of them plans to prove he belongs by setting his bar of expectations high.

"We all earned our way into this field," said Gary Sowinski, the PGA Director of Golf at Morgan Run Resort in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. "Many us have had to sacrifice quite a bit to get here. Some of us have sacrificed time with our families, missed some important events, all so we could keep our level of play as high as we could.

"Just like anyone who's successful in any business, you have to commit yourself to achieve certain things and reach certain goals," he explained. "One goal was to get here. Now it's to play well."

And though they'll offer no excuses, there is a special fraternity among the PGA Club Professionals that is evident in the encouragement and counsel they offer each other as they all try to balance the rigors of competing in an extremely tough setting while not being able to devote their full energy for preparation.

"As you get to know some of your fellow club professionals that you see at some of these national events, and you become close to them and close friends with them, you also realize that the passion and the drive that propels them to great golf is also what propels them in everything they do," explained Sowinski. "These are the guys that you know you can call on anytime you're in a bind and they'll figure out a way to help you out."

And the encouragement they offer each other often pays big dividends.

"Just to get here, each club professional had to go through some extremely tough qualifying," said George Forster, the PGA Head Professional at Radnor Valley Country Club in Pennsylvania. "These guys are all competitors. We all want and expect to do well. Yes, we're excited about playing in this. But we're here to play well."

"I've played five times this spring," said Jim White, a PGA Master Professional from Lincoln, Neb., prior to teeing off in his first round. "I practiced a little bit this spring, but in the Midwest, in our part of the country, spring's our busiest season.

"But I'm not going dwell on that now. It is what it is and I accept that," he added. "But if you have good swing thoughts, if you're hitting it good -- golf's a funny game. It doesn't matter what time of year it is, if you're hitting it good, you're hitting it good."

"If you can not be nervous and get off to a good start, it's possible to do really well in the tournament," explained Darrell Kestner, the PGA Head Professional at Deepdale Golf Club in Manhassett, N.Y. "If you get on a good roll and have some momentum, you can put up a good score. As a club pro, that's a bit more difficult to battle the nerves at the start. But it can be done.

"A good week for me will be making the cut," Kestner added after shooting an opening-round 76. "I didn't get off to a great start for that, but I think I can still do that. After that, I'd like to make good showing."

"It's not just about making the cut," echoed Robert Thompson, a PGA Teaching Professional at Whispering Pines in Trinity, Tex. "It's about putting together four respectable rounds."

Thompson got off to a good start with a very respectable 73 in his opening round, which has him tied for 22nd. Kestner's 76 has him tied for 51st and in good position to play into the weekend.

Brian Whitcomb, the president of The PGA of America, expressed his admiration for players who were proudly representing the Association at this illustrious championship.

"We have 38 incredible stories in our PGA Club Professionals and each of them exemplify the talent, character and integrity that makes The PGA of America the great organization that it is," said Whitcomb.

Mike Barge, the PGA Director of Instruction at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., managed to find a playing advantage as a PGA Club Professional. "Being from Minnesota, we have had a lot of days like this in the last month or so. So I've played in four or five layers before and had the stocking cap on. And it was a little bit chilly starting out, but it didn't rain, which was the key."

Barge seemed to be on to something. He shot a 2-over par 72, which has him tied for 13th after the opening round.

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