One of the distinct features of the PGA Championship, golf’s final major each year, is that 20 PGA club professionals qualify to compete, similarly to the BMW PGA Championship in Europe. It is just that in the United States it is acted out on a different scale. Robin Barwick reports from Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky
Not only does the PGA Championship generally boast the strongest field in golf, with virtually all of the world’s top 100 golfers competing annually, but as the only major championship to have a field consisting entirely of professionals, it features the top 20 players from the year’s PGA Professional National Championship, the national competition for the PGA of America’s 27,000 club professional members.
Every year, 20 club pros earn the right to tee up with the world’s best, in front of a global TV audience and with a prize fund of $10 million in 2014 – the biggest purse in the majors – to be shared between those who make the cut. Those 20 pros are all Cinderellas, just with stubble and golf spikes.
“It’s a dream to be here,” admitted Michael Block, the head professional from Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in Mission Viejo, California, and champion of the 2014 PGA Professional National Championship. “I’m just like everyone else out there on the other side of the ropes this week, for sure, and I see myself in them and I’ve been there watching from outside the ropes myself.
“I had my ticket signed by Payne Stewart at the 1992 PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club, where I’m from [St. Louis], so every time I sign someone’s ticket here this week my mind goes straight back to when I was 10 years old doing the exact same thing.”
Block, 38, won the National Championship at The Dunes Golf Club at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in June, to lead a massive final field of 312 pros, who had each advanced from a series of 41 PGA Section championships. The National Championship has a prize fund of $550,000 all on its own, by the way, which is considerably more than your average Challenge Tour event in Europe.
It is a long journey for the club pros who teed up at Valhalla, and Block had to become used to a high level of media attention even before he reached the gates of Kentucky’s most famous club.
“Since winning the National Championship my life has been non-stop phone calls, e‑mails, interviews and microphones hanging off my back,” says Block. “I have been trying to play golf with wires up my shirt, but it’s been great. I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.
“At the club, my office door is right there where everyone checks in by the golf shop, so I have had a lot of people coming in, shaking hands and wishing me luck. I’ve even heard from a lot of my old schoolmates from back in the day that I haven’t seen in 20 years.
“Beyond that, being a national champion is something no one can ever take away from me, so that’s pretty amazing. When I tee off and the starter says, ‘Now on the tee, the 2014 National Club Pro champion’ it gives me chills.”
Playing a different game
Ultimately, Block missed the cut at Valhalla by eight shots after shooting 77-75, 10 over par for two rounds, playing with Colin Montgomerie and 2003 PGA Champion Shaun Micheel.
“It was great. I had a blast,” said Block afterwards. “I had three bad holes that probably cost me the cut – a triple and two doubles. Other than that I played well. The experience was fantastic but I am definitely not used to greens this fast or bent grass cut that low. I was out of my element but the conditions were absolutely fantastic. It took a little bit of time to get used to it for sure.”
Like Block, almost all club pros fail to make the cut in the PGA Championship. The last club pro to play the weekend was Mike Small in 2011. Small is the head coach at the University of Illinois, and a very accomplished player, he has made the cut in the PGA Championship three times in nine appearances. He is a three-time winner of the PGA National Championship, but his best finish in the PGA Championship itself is a tie for 69th, in 2007 and again in 2011.
Only one club pro has made any headway on the PGA Championship leaderboard since the turn of the millennium, which was Chip Sullivan in 2004. Sullivan, who is the director of golf at Hanging Rock GC in Salem, Virginia, shot 72-71-73-71 to finish in a tie for 31st at Whistling Straits, which earned him a windfall of $34,250.
As for Block, he left Valhalla with memories that will never fade, such as watching Rory McIlroy practice from close range.
“I was watching Rory hit the most unbelievable bunker shots,” says Block. “That guy is on fire, and I know I don’t get the spin out of the bunkers that he does. I can see what he does: Rory really opens up the clubface and accelerates through the ball more than I would, because I would be afraid of thinning the ball and hitting the spectators on the other side of the short game area! But he’s not afraid of that, I guess.”