By Don Jozwiak, PGA Magazine
Last year's Senior PGA Professional National Championship presented by Mercedes-Benz ended with Frank Esposito Jr. rolling in a 25-foot birdie putt and celebrating a four-stroke victory with a fist pump on the final hole on the Wanamaker Course at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Florida. No one knows how the 2015 event will end, with one prominent exception: Esposito won't be the one celebrating when the final stroke is played.
That's because Esposito continued his strong play beyond last year's Senior PGA Professional National Championship presented by Mercedes-Benz and earned a full exemption to play on the Champions Tour this year. Because active Champions Tour players are not eligible to play in the event, the 27th Senior PGA Professional National Championship presented by Mercedes-Benz – set for Oct. 15–18 at Bayonet Black Horse in Seaside, California – will end with a different player taking home the Leo Fraser Trophy.
The 264-player field has a wide-open shot at victory, with a slight advantage going to players who fared well on the Bayonet and Black Horse layouts when they hosted the 2012 PGA Professional National Championship, won by Matt Dobyns. The storied courses on the property of the former Fort Ord military base are known for posing unique challenges, and a little local knowledge can go a long way.
"Those are two of the best courses in the Monterey area, and definitely the two toughest," says Brian Cairns, a PGA teaching professional at Fox Hills Learning Center in Plymouth, Michigan, who finished tied for 15th at the 2012 PGA Professional National Championship. "It's a big help to have played out there before, and I just played there again last year for the Champions Tour qualifier, and I just missed by a stroke. I'm looking forward to going back."
Cairns' performance in 2012 earned him a berth in that year's PGA Championship on The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island (South Carolina) Golf Resort at age 48. Now 51, Cairns is playing some of the best golf of his life. He finished tied for fifth at the PGA Professional National Championship at Philadelphia Cricket Club earlier this summer, including an impressive final-round 67 that earned him a spot in the field for last month's PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin – his third PGA Championship appearance.
In his first Senior PGA Professional National Championship presented by Mercedes-Benz last year, Cairns finished tied for 32nd, then parred the first hole of a playoff to become one of the 35 PGA Professionals to earn a spot in the field of this year's Senior PGA Championship presented by Kitchen-Aid at the Pete Dye Course at French Lick (Indiana) Resort.
The battle for those 35 berths in the 2016 Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid – set for next May at The Golf Club at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Michigan – will be a major plot line again this year at the Senior PGA Professional National Championship presented by Mercedes-Benz. The top eight finishers will also earn exemptions into the 2016 Senior PGA Professional National Championship.
The winner of this year's event will earn $20,000 from the $285,000 purse, and they’ll have to earn every penny of it on two of the Monterey Peninsula's toughest tests. Players will split their first two rounds between the Black Horse and Bayonet courses, with the final two rounds played on the Black Horse layout.
Renovations to the property in 2007 and 2008 have added to the facility's reputation for having some of the best greens in the area. The Bayonet layout includes a three-hole stretch of tough dogleg-left holes known as "Combat Corner," with each hole featuring tight, tree-lined fairways.
"Those are both great courses for high ball hitters – Dobyns hits the ball really high, so you can see how he won there," Cairns says. "It's a great facility for tournament golf, and you know it's going to be in great shape for the Senior PGA Professional National Championship."