PGA Professional Champions recall their greatest memories -- on and off the course

By PGA Magazine
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PGA Professional Champions recall their greatest memories -- on and off the course

From the June 2017 Issue of PGA Magazine

Winning the PGA Professional Championship can be a life-changing event, and is often a career pinnacle for those fortunate enough to have their names inscribed on the base of the Walter Hagen Cup. PGA Magazine asked this elite group of all 35 living past Champions to share memories of their victories – on and off the course – and describe the impact it had on their lives and careers.

“How I played was the most memorable to me during that week. I don’t think I’d ever shot four rounds under par in a tournament before. I’ve been notorious for giving up on my game during rounds, and to finally have some reserve to control myself and not let a bad swing control the rest of my round was very satisfying.” – Rich Berberian Jr., 2016 Champion

“I remember three-putting the last hole in regulation, but didn’t let it bother me. I figured, ‘You got a second chance.’ I headed to a playoff against Jim Ferree, where we each managed par on the first hole. I got up and down from the bunker and was complimented by Dow Finsterwald, who was watching the match. On the second playoff hole, a par 5, I knew I couldn’t reach it in two. I laid up over a bunker and hit it to about 15 feet from the hole. I made the putt, while Jim three-putted from 40 feet for par. Winning that Championship, it doesn’t get any better than that.” – John Gentile, 1978 Champion

“I had won with an asterisk in 2000. Weather abbreviated the Championship when lightning forced a 54-hole event and five-hole cumulative score playoff at Oak Tree Golf Club. Three years later at Twin Warriors Golf Club, I was seeking validation. The Championship is the biggest stage for PGA Professionals and it was the springboard to where I am now – a five-time winner on the European Senior Tour. The PGA Professional Championship is a great way to develop lifelong friendships, and it has just gotten better and better. That is a credit to the PGA and its sponsors for taking it to another level.” – Tim Thelen, 2000 and ’03 Champion

MORE: FAQs, historical nuggets from PGA Professional Championship

“I was traveling by myself that week. So as the tournament progressed, I thought a lot about winning a national Championship for my dad, who had passed unexpectedly a couple years prior. I also thought of how excited my girls were watching me win on TV. It meant a great deal to me to be the best playing PGA Club Professional in the country. It’s something that can’t be taken away, and will live in history forever.” – Mike Burke Jr., 1998 Champion

“Over the past few years, the PGA Professional Championship has been very good to me. I do everything I can to make sure I’m playing my absolute best golf in the middle of June. When I won at Sunriver in 2013, it was great to have my family there with me on the 18th green as I finished. Having my wife, Jaclyn, and our two kids, Vanessa and Carson, there was the absolute highlight of my playing career. It wouldn’t have been complete without them.” – Rod Perry, 2013 Champion

“One credit (for my win at Pinehurst in 1974) goes to Rives McBee, who said a year earlier that no PGA Club Professional without extensive tour experience has won this Championship. That inspired me and I appreciated the encouragement. The following year in Pine Mountain, Georgia, on the night before the final round, I heard Bob Toski predict in a restaurant that I would win. I am in life a problem-solver, and I’m inspired by challenges.” – Roger Watson, 1974–75 Champion

“I have so many great memories from the PGA Professional Championship. I remember getting a big hug from PGA Past President Allen Wronowski’s wife, Gail, before I hit my tee ball in the first round the year I won at Sunriver (2007). That tradition has stayed in place whenever she is present. This will be my fourth visit to this event at Sunriver. My family and I have many wonderful memories. I remember my oldest girl, Kalley, catching her first fish when we went boating one afternoon at Sunriver Resort. We all went hiking in the lava tubes, horseback riding, biking and adventuring on Mount Bachelor, to name a few. Each and every moment is a treasure, and we are forever grateful.” – Chip Sullivan, 2007 Champion

“I remember playing two rounds of the Championship with Tommy Bolt. I was working at Beechwood Country Club in Cleveland, and had been playing pretty well heading into the Championship. During the round, I knocked a wedge to within eight inches, but found a heel print right around the hole. I was fortunate that it wasn’t a longer putt, and I got it in. I remember the greens were so grainy. It was a real pleasing win for me. You can always remember those that you win.” – Rex Baxter Jr., 1970 Champion

“I was just hanging around and was four strokes behind Dana Quigley after 54 holes. Then things got interesting and I found myself in contention after a 1-under front nine and Quigley made a double bogey behind me. I came up to the par-3 17th, and the island green with a stiff wind in my face. I said to myself, ‘You have to try to hit the green, no matter what.’ I hit 7-iron and it rolled to 15 feet from the hole, and I made the putt. But oh man, coming home on 18 I found a near unplayable lie in the downslope of a greenside bunker. I took so long figuring it out that Rules official Ken Lindsay walked up and said that I had to play. My playing partner, Jim Blair, said, ‘I think you can do it.’ I opened the face of my wedge 180 degrees, I guess, and the ball popped up and 50 feet from the hole. I two-putted for bogey and my family members in the gallery, who don’t know much about golf, were cheering. This threw off Quigley’s group. They were held up and never saw me struggling. Quigley double-bogeyed the hole and I win by one.” – Bob Lendzion, 1986 Champion

“Winning the 2004 PGA Professional Championship will always be the most special victory of my career because it’s the last time my dad ever saw me play. We’d recently found out that my dad had cancer, and although we didn’t know it was terminal, my whole family was on edge. The Championship was close enough for my parents to come watch, and although I don’t remember many shots from that week, I’ll always remember my dad walking every hole of the tournament with me. What an inspiration it was to look over and see him on every hole.” – Bob Sowards, 2004 Champion

“I look back at the 2001 PGA Professional Championship as the single greatest playing accomplishment of my career. Just about everywhere I go in the world of golf, someone remembers that I won the national Championship. I can’t emphasize enough how winning has contributed to the respect and credibility I have received not only for my playing ability, but for my teaching as well. The prospect of possibly finishing in the top 20 (to qualify for the PGA Championship) motivates me to put the time in to get my game ready each year. I have played in five PGA Championships, and I truly believe offering PGA Club Professionals the chance to play in a major championship is the greatest perk the PGA of America provides members of its Association.” – Wayne DeFrancesco, 2001 Champion

“I was an alternate who got into the Championship three days before the first round. I found accommodations in a motel, and two nights before the first round an intruder broke into my room and made off with my wallet – which included $300 cash, all my credit cards and driver’s license. I was upset, but still wanted to go on and play. It turns out my wallet was returned by authorities without the cash, but all other items intact. I played with an old Hogan wedge that I adjusted to 60 degrees and sharpened the leading edge. I practiced an hour a day from around the green. Even though I lost the cash I came with, I won $20,000 for first place and an additional $25,000 from Titleist for using their clubs and $5,000 for wearing a Michelob visor. I came out pretty good from it all.” – Larry Webb, 1983 Champion

“I was a two-time recipient of the Bronze Star while serving in Vietnam, and returned to civilian life in the summer of 1969 with $500 in my pocket and was offered a free round of golf at Edgmont Country Club, 40minutes west of Philadelphia. I got that round of golf and never looked back. I remember hitting a driver and 8-iron to 12 feet on the last hole in 1985 and won by two. It was a big thrill to win and something I’m very proud of. In 1983, my father had a stroke and I was coming off having failed to make it through Tour School. So, getting that win a couple years later was a great boost of confidence for me. From there, I went on to play regularly on the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions.” – Ed Dougherty, 1985 Champion

“Winning the 1977 PGA Professional Championship almost did not happen due to my poor play previous to the event. My wife, Marlene, talked me into going to the event at Callaway Gardens. I knew on the last day, with the temperature at 39 degrees, some of the players would not perform to their best. That was an incentive to ‘dig’ hard. I was fortunate to make about a 12-foot left-to-right putt on the last hole to win. Winning the Championship made a huge difference in my career, and definitely helped define my professional life.” – Laurie Hammer, 1977 Champion

“I remember it like it was yesterday. Playing the Pete Dye Stadium Course was like holding your breath on every shot. It was pure target golf. I had a two-stroke lead on the 18th hole of the final round and went with my strength, a left-to-right beauty of a drive. Jeff (Thomsen) blocked a 3-wood and ended up with a bogey. That is a very difficult tournament to win. You are facing the best of the best.”- Bruce Fleisher, 1989 Champion

“I began the final round two strokes off the lead and posted a steady 2-under-par 70 to land in a playoff with Gary Ostrega. I just tried not to make any big mistakes, and Gary made three birdies in a row coming in. In the playoff, I had about a six-footer for birdie and I didn’t know if I could take the putter back. Somehow I did and the ball went in the hole. To be playing in your Association’s national Championship – doesn’t get much bigger than that. Winning was huge for me, more than an opportunity to compete in the U.S. Open and World Series of Golf. Doors opened for me, and I am proud of the respect that I get from my Section and being the only Indiana PGA Section Professional to win the Championship.” – Bill Schumaker, 1984 Champion

“The Michigan PGA Section was incredibly competitive – Buddy Whitten had won the PGA Professional Championship in 1979 – and winning a Section event was very tough. I hadn’t won anything in the Section, but trying to beat all my friends and peers in Michigan formed the basis for me being able to win anywhere. I started the final round on the Haig Course eight strokes back, and was just trying to play well enough to make the PGA Championship. But I crept up on the leaders and ended up winning. It was such a great experience.” – John Traub, 1980 Champion

“It was a great tournament and I played pretty consistently that week. In fact, I made four birdies and two bogeys each round through the first 54 holes. The final round, with six birdies and three bogeys, I was more nervous playing with someone who had made more than $1 million on tour, Gibby Gilbert. Even though I made six birdies, the final round was no cakewalk. I struggled through three straight bogeys before I birdied the eighth to force a tie. A birdie on 16 put me three strokes ahead and pretty much sealed it. The opportunity afforded me by winning to represent PGA Members in other events, including the World Series of Golf, was very special.” – Jay Lumpkin, 1987 Champion

“Our son, Chris, was born Sept. 29, and the Championship was Nov. 8. My wife was having back issues after the birth. We were living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and didn’t have any family nearby and Kelly Services could not help us as we had anticipated. My mind was on affairs at home, and I tried to get a plane ticket and withdraw from the Championship. There were no flights available to Michigan, so I stayed, not knowing what would happen. I played steady and somehow got into a playoff with Jackie Lewis. On the second playoff hole, a par 5, I played left of a bunker guarding the green and chipped my third shot to about six feet. Jackie made par. I remember a photographer was moving behind me. ‘I’m nervous enough as it is,’ I told him. ‘Could you please be still long enough to allow me to putt?’ I rolled in the birdie putt, and I finally got that plane ticket home.” – Buddy Whitten, 1979 Champion

“It’s funny how you can forget about things you did yesterday and almost remember every shot you hit in some golf tournaments. I will always remember the 67 I had on Pinehurst No. 2 in the second round. When I won, it held that all players who’d won had tour experience. That has changed significantly over the years. I watch the players on TV playing now in the Championship and am impressed. I’m proud that my win allowed me to play on the PGA Cup team that year, which held its first competition on Pinehurst No. 2.” – Rives McBee, 1973 Champion

“I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember being interviewed after the third round, in the lead, and thinking, ‘Wow this is fun!’ Then I walked past the leaderboard and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m leading a national Championship!’ I was scared to death not to lose, because in golf we lose way more than we win. I somehow got it done and it’s now one of the greatest memories of my life!” – Barry Evans, 2002 Champion

“During that first round at PGA West, my putting just felt off – I couldn’t make anything and was 1- over through six holes. On No. 7, I decided to make a change and go left-hand low the rest of the round. I got it back to 1-under that day, and ended up shooting 64-67-67 the next three rounds, which I think is still a record. My game is all putting, so I knew if I didn’t make that change, I would’ve missed the cut without a doubt.” – Darrell Kestner, 1996 Champion

“You don’t think about it when you’re actually competing, but after winning the PGA Professional Championship a second time you really understand how special – and how difficult – it is to accomplish. When you look back on each Championship, each is a different experience and memorable for a variety of reasons. I dedicated the second Championship I won to my wife and children. Breaking Sam Snead’s record (in 2012) was something I wasn’t really aware of until after it happened, but when I look back I cherish every single second.” – Matt Dobyns, 2012, ’15 Champion

“Being able to share that moment in Myrtle Beach (at the Dunes Club) by having my family run onto the green after I won will be etched in my mind for the rest of my life. We all take great pride in being members of such a great Association, but to be the individual who is crowned the national Champion is something you will never understand unless you win. To be announced on the first tee as the 2014 PGA Professional Champion in every event I play continues to give me chills down my back every time it happens.” – Michael Block, 2014 Champion

“The congratulations and recognition I’ve received from friends, colleagues and even people outside the golf industry was overwhelming – and still continues to be. A lot of doors opened after I won the 2011 PGA Professional Championship. Of course, playing in the PGA Championship was a great experience, but traveling to Japan to compete in the Japan PGA Championship was another experience I’ll never forget. I was honored to represent the PGA of America there. However, I would have to say that representing the United States in the PGA Cup is tops in my book. Spending quality time with my fellow PGA Professional teammates, PGA Officers and our families is a treasured memory.” – David Hutsell, 2011 Champion

“To this day, people come up and congratulate me. It follows you wherever you go. Winning got me into goal-setting mode and inspired me to take my game to the next level. It gave me more confidence as a player and as a teacher. It’s a great honor to say I won our Association’s national Championship. It’s been several years now, but it’s something I will never forget. One thing about that week sticks out in most people’s mind: I made a hole-in-one (on the 198-yard third hole) in the final round. I mean, you dream about making an ace once in a while, but to do it in a national Championship is something you never plan on.”– Ron Philo Jr., 2006 Champion

“It was my second year of PGA Membership, I was making my debut in the Championship and it was the first PGA-sanctioned championship on Whistling Straits. I chipped in on No. 13 in the final round, saved par on 17 and bogeyed 18 to win by two. I was the only one under par, and just tried to keep it out of trouble all week. It meant a lot to me to win, especially because of getting an exemption into the PGA Championship. I had a good stretch of play during that time, qualifying for the U.S. Open and going on to play for eight years on the then-Nationwide Tour.” – Jeff Freeman, 1999 Champion

“The PGA Professional Championship is the greatest thing I’ve ever won and, to this day, means everything to me. Beyond golf, I have so many memories of that week in Georgia. My wife, Laurie, wasn’t able to be with me because of the early birth of our daughter, Susie. Her health was never in danger and she was doing well when I left for the Championship. I was happy to be playing, but I was keeping one eye on what was happening back home in Michigan. At the end of it, I remember taking a long look at the Walter Hagen Cup and just thinking about how special it was to have my name on it. Walter Hagen spent a lot of time in Michigan, and to win his namesake trophy was truly special.” – Scott Hebert, 2008 Champion

“Winning in ’93 at PGA National was the culmination and reward for two years of hard work in revamping my golf game. It was also that door opening to a career of success, great experiences and memories I will take to my grave! The many great people I’ve met through the years at the PGA Cup, major Championships ... priceless! And, the ‘rock’ and ‘glue’ to my success lies with my wife of 30 years, Maureen! Her support, friendship, guidance and love have always given me direction and purpose.”– Jeff Roth, 1993 Champion

“I remember vividly the words Barry Evans said to me after I won my first Championship. He said, ‘Welcome to the club,’ meaning the Champions’ club. At the time, I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but an hour later it made sense to me after I started to quickly realize what winning the Championship meant. Being the reigning Champion is a big deal nationwide and it carries a responsibility of giving back to the Association. I really enjoyed representing the PGA Membership three times as their Champion and would love to do it again!” – Mike Small, 2005, ’09, ’10 Champion

“It was something like 110 degrees in the California desert, but I felt very calm the whole week. The final hole on the La Quinta Mountain Course is a par 4, with trouble down the left and an island green awaiting you. I had a three- stroke lead, but didn’t hesitate to pull driver before hitting it right down the middle. I hit a 6-iron about 25 feet past the flag to be safe and two-putted for par. It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years. Until that time, the PGA awarded the silver Walter Hagen Cup. I was the first to lift a piece of crystal. My crystal trophy is still in my mother’s home in Texas.” – Ron McDougal, 1992 Champion

“I came into the week having caddied for a friend the week before at the Southern Open at Callaway Gardens in Georgia. I had not hit a ball at all, and got in only nine holes of practice. What helped me the most that week, and throughout my career, was being able to drive the ball well. It was also a reunion week to get to catch up and see a lot of friends that I would only see once a year. Winning the actual Championship was something better than I had hoped for.” – Sammy Rachels, 1994 Champion

“I played my final round on the Stadium Course at PGA West and triple-bogeyed the first hole. I was walking with my head down to the second tee and told myself, ‘If you play to the best you can, you can still win this.’ I finished 4-under-par the last 17 holes, winning by three. My other memory was getting exempt as an American champion to play in the European Club Professional Championship. I won that championship by two and nobody else has ever done that. It was a great honor to win the PGA Professional Championship.” – Brett Upper, 1990 Champion

“I remember the third round on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course. Just as I walked off the 17th tee, my dad appeared out of nowhere, and I asked him what he was doing there. He had driven from his home in Las Vegas and said, ‘I’m here to see you win the Club Pro Championship.’ Later that year, I met Johnny Miller in Utah. He said, ‘Steve, do you realize that you won one of the toughest events to win besides a Tour event? That’s 360 players. It’s a marathon!’ ” – Steve Schneiter, 1995 Champion

“Winning the PGA Professional Championship was special in many ways. Two of the most memorable are to be able to compete on such a fine course against a field of the nation’s best PGA Club Professionals and then being able to share the Championship with Bob Joyce, the PGA Professional at Southampton Golf Club who has been a mentor to me since the age of 14. Bob is the reason I am a PGA

Member. Bob’s name should be on that trophy along with mine.” – Bruce Zabriski, 1997 Champion