There are 312 players teeing it up in the 2017 PGA Professional Championship beginning June 18 at the Sunriver Resort in Sunriver, Oregon.
With that comes 312 unique stories.
This one belongs to Derek Sanders, who is vying to become one of the top-20 finishers to earn a spot in the 99th PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, August 10-13.
Sanders is a golf nomad.
The 48-year-old from the Gulf States PGA Section – unlike most of the professionals we’ll see at the PPC – doesn’t spend most of his days in a pro shop, outside a clubhouse organizing member tournaments, or on the practice tee giving instructions (though he does do that in his spare time).
Instead, Sanders spends most of his time traveling city to city on the PGA Tour Champions, where he currently caddies for 1986 PGA Champion Bob Tway.
“I’m a sales rep too for the belt company Torino and also for the SwingOil golf drink,” Sanders said. “On off weeks, I do some teaching back home.”
Home has been Louisiana, but Sanders and his family are moving to North Carolina at the end of August.
Sanders earned his spot in the PPC field – it’ll be his sixth appearance and he’s made the cut on two occasions – through a Gulf States Section qualifying tournament. He birdied the final two holes in regulation at Hattiesburg Country Club in Mississippi to get into a playoff for the final spot and then birdied the first extra hole to get in.
This sixth trip to the PPC is going to be particularly special for Sanders and one he’ll forever remember regardless of the outcome.
Those in the golf community are a charitable bunch. One of Sanders’s dearest friends is Mark “Ziggy” Zyons, who caddies for Billy Andrade.
Sanders and Zyons room together quite a bit on the road to save a few bucks. It’s also because they enjoy each other’s company and have similar interests. Primarily, they’re both golf junkies.
“I stay with Ziggy probably 95 percent of the time out here,” Sanders said. “We’ll caddie 18 in the hot sun and if the tee times work out, we go play 18 holes together in the afternoon. What else are we going to do? We have families and we’re not going to bars to drink. I’m not the guy who goes to the hotel to lay around. I’d rather hit balls, putt, stay outside, or stay with Bob while he gets in extra work. The other caddies think we’re a little crazy, but we just love it.”
When Sanders, a full-time caddie since 2010, qualified for the PPC, Zyons wanted to do something special.
He and Martin Courtois, who caddies for 2016 Senior PGA Champion Rocco Mediate, summoned caddies and PGA Tour Champions players to gather funds so that most – if not all – of Sanders’s travel expenses to Sunriver would be covered.
“Emotional” is the only way to describe how it all went down.
“One day, Ziggy and Martin handed $100 bills,” Sanders recalled. “I asked what it was for. They said they were asking for donations from caddies and players to get me to Sunriver and help to make them all proud.”
Sanders paused as he explained it, still clearly touched.
“I didn’t think they really cared about a caddie in that sense.”
At Sunriver, Sanders said he won’t be playing just for himself. He’ll be playing for his family and his PGA Tour Champions family as well.
“They’re all pulling for me,” he said. “If I do well it’ll be pretty emotional. I’ve never had anyone actually give me money to go play. This is actually really, really cool for people that are out there and actually trying to support me and help me out.”
Aware of the fact that not everyone would like to be identified for their generous donations, Sanders would only graciously say that one player arranged roundtrip airfare for him, others have provided cash for a caddie, a rental car, food and a friend who will be out in Sunriver for the tournament is bringing Sanders in as a roommate that week to spare him the hotel expenses.
“Derek might not be the kind of guy who actually needs the donations,” Zyons said recently at the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship. “But he’s just a great guy. We wanted to show him that we’re pulling for him and send him out there so that all he needs to focus on is his game. I play a lot of golf with him. He’s good enough to win the damn thing.”
Sanders isn’t getting ahead of himself in that regard. Sure, a win would be the ultimate. A top-20 finish would mean he’d bug the heck out of Tway to peg it in the PGA Championship (Tway’s victory gave him a lifetime exemption) for the first time since 2009 so they could play a practice round together, along with Tway’s son, Kevin, who could be there playing as well.
“I think it helps to not worry about all the expenses, but my personality is ‘these guys gave you money and you better play well,’” he said. “Added pressure I’m OK with. The more pressure the better for me. I don’t mind having the pressure. I need it to get me going. If I free wheel it, I’m not giving it my 100 percent best.”
The support, of course, isn’t limited to his friends on the PGA Tour Champions.
“My wife and my family – I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. “I won’t say she allows me to do what I do, but I couldn’t ask for a better person to allow me to travel the U.S. and caddie to take care of the family and she supports that. She’s my biggest supporter whether we play good or not. She’s there with us 100 percent and takes care of my two girls for me.”
Fate can be a funny thing. Sanders previously caddied for Gene Sauers. He was on the bag a year ago when Sauers won the Senior U.S. Open.
One of the perks that comes with winning the Senior U.S. Open is an exemption into the following year’s U.S. Open.
Earlier this year in Naples, Sauers and Sanders parted ways.
It was a blessing in disguise. You see, the first round of the PPC is the same day as the final round of the U.S. Open. Had Sanders still been with Sauers, he would have been working for his boss at Erin Hills and wouldn’t have been able to go to Sunriver altogether.
“He did me a favor in a way, splitting,” Sanders said. “It all worked out perfectly.”
While Sanders won’t have as much time to tune up his game like many of the others in the PPC field, he’s been recollecting things he’s learned from players he’s caddied for and has also sought out some advice.
“Being out here working for Tway for a few weeks, I’ve learned about what goes through his mind,” he said. “I’ve worked with Sauers, who makes it simple. David Toms has taught me how to dissect a course. If you can’t get to greens, get to angles. That helps a lot. Not just the guy you’re caddying for, but how other players in a group map a golf course. Everybody hits it good. It’s just the short game and putting and working with Tway, the putting has helped me out. He doesn’t think he putts well, but he does. He’s taught me about the swing and putting.
“I talked to Kevin Sutherland – he’s the only one really I’ve talked to about it – I’ll ask more questions in Des Moines about how to handle certain situations. I know what to expect, but what do you do in certain situations? Kevin said just go out and play and enjoy it. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. I’m going to have fun. It’s a lot less nerve wracking carrying the bag than hitting the shots.”
Sanders also has a practice round planned in Sunriver with buddy Chip Sullivan, who won the 2007 PPC at Sunriver.
In a way, you might think Sanders could have a hand up on his fellow competitors. After all, a caddie at his level wears many hats. Along with carrying the bag, he’s a friend, a swing coach and a mental coach.
Caddies need to know when and how to say the right thing. Presumably, Sanders will know when and how to tell himself the right thing at Sunriver.
“As a caddie, your nerves are different than as a player,” he said. “You need to be an even keeled guy when your guy gets down. You need to build him back up slowly. Get a little pep in his step. Don’t let him get too fast. Keep it under control. Being a caddie, you see how they react. Now it’ll be flipped. I have to say, I need to control myself since I’m used to controlling those guys.”
Should he make it to Quail Hollow, Sanders chuckled at what would be the coolest part of the experience. For most, it might be playing a major. Maybe it’s hitting shots on the range between the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson.
For Sanders, it’s simpler than that.
“To play in the PGA as a PGA member would mean a lot,” he said. “Plus, walking in the locker room with the right credentials instead of getting stopped. That’d be a lot of fun.”
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