First Round of PGA Championship a Challenge for Team of 20, But it’s More About the Experience Than the Numbers

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Larkin Gross somehow had remained business-like for a long day of practice earlier this week at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, home to the 103rd PGA Championship. But once he put his clubs away and stepped into his van, the game face came off, and he no longer could hold everything in.
He turned to his girlfriend, Paige Church, and as a big grin broke out, he exclaimed, “You know we just played with Rickie Fowler? And Kevin Kisner? And Hudson Swafford?”
At 23, Gross is the youngest club professional in the field at the PGA Championship, the baby among the Team of 20 club pros. He is a Teaching Professional at Springfield Golf & Country Club in Springfield, Va., and a force in the Middle Atlantic PGA Section. Gross has been trying to soak in his first PGA Championship as best he can without being too awestruck. Thursday morning, nerves got the best of him at the start. He made bogeys on five of his first six holes before settling down and playing much better on his last 12 holes. He signed for 80, and knows that there will be better days ahead.
Gross will do his best to fight back on Friday, much the way he did at the recent PGA Professional Championship at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Hovering near the top-20 cutoff as he made a run at garnering a spot in the PGA Championship, he made 11 birdies in the third round, and shot 64. He knows lots of talent resides within him, even at one of the toughest tests in golf.
“I know we’re going to play better tomorrow,” said Butch Gross, Larkin’s dad, who is a public school principal in Warsaw, Va. Butch played many sports, but found the game of golf later, right around the time Larkin came along. Butch coached several sports, but his own principal at the time needed a favor: He needed a golf coach. So Butch learned by watching a video series from former Virginia Tech coach Jay Hardwick and mental strength books from Dr. Bob Rotella. By the time Larkin was 4, he was hitting balls and practicing with the high school team. This week, father and son have shared a dream as Larkin, a former standout at Divison III power Methodist, is competing in first major championship. 
“This validates all the things that he is trying to do, his mission,” Butch Gross said. “He made a birdie putt at 14 today, and it was incredible to hear the roars. I’m not going to forget that. I can’t tell you how proud I am of him. He’s always been a good son.”
Ben Cook (Grand Rapids, Mich.), playing in his third consecutive PGA Championship, led the Team of 20 on Thursday with a terrific late-afternoon effort, shooting level-par 72. Cook is PGA Director of Instruction at Yankee Springs Golf Course in Wayland, Mich., and is one of three assistants in the field who worked this winter at John’s Island Golf Club in Vero Beach, Fla.
Cook started off on 10, shot 39 on his first nine, then turned and made four birdies against a lone bogey coming home. Cook hit only eight of 18 greens, but he scrambled very well. Tied for 31st, he will have a good shot at making it to the weekend at the Ocean Course. 
Brad Marek, PGA Teaching Professional at Corica Park in Alameda, Calif., opened with 73. Englishman Mark Geddes, PGA Assistant at Coronado (Calif.) Golf Course, and Alex Beach, winner of the 2019 PGA Professional Championship, shot 3-over 75s. Geddes is competing in his first PGA Championship; Beach, PGA Assistant at Westchester Country Club in Rye, N.Y., is competing in his fourth.
As for Gross, he was working hard on his game Thursday afternoon, determined to make a better showing at the Ocean Course on Friday. Whatever the numbers, already he has had a great week. Church, his girlfriend, was on a winning NCAA Div. III championship team for Methodist (N.C.) last week, helping lead the team with a final-round 73. She gave Butch a day off from caddie duties on Tuesday, taking the bag herself as Larkin joined Fowler, Kisner and Swafford. Fowler and Gross actually won a few bucks that day..
“It’s been a cool experience,” Gross said, standing near the practice green. “I try not to let the fact that I’m putting next to players I’ve watched my entire life make a difference … but it’s hard not to let it make a difference sometimes. It’s been awesome. I’m pinching myself.”
Gross relished the chance to play with fellow Virginian Lanto Griffin, who is a winner on the PGA Tour. He told Griffin that he was 15 when Griffin won the Virginia Amateur as he traveled his long path to the PGA Tour. The arranged a practice round through social media, and Griffin was highly impressed with what he saw from Gross. 
“At 23, he’s a really good player,” Griffin said. “Any time you get that Virginia connection, it’s fun to see. It’s a small club. It was cool to see his excitement. He’s really mature, and has a really good game. Whoever has him, I guess Springfield Country Club … who knows how long they’ll have him for? He’s good, and he was a lot of fun to play with.”
“I can only imagine being 23, working at a club, and then coming out here … He seems like a mature kid with a good head on his shoulders, so that’s going to help him out as much as having a good golf swing.”