Club pros get a taste of tour, and of reality

By Doug Ferguson

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, April 17 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - This Sept. 16, 2011 file photo shows Jack Nicklaus gesturing during an interview at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club in Incheon, South Korea. Nicklaus recalls when a club pro and a PGA Tour player were not that far apart.

Lee Jin-man, File, Associated Press

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jack Nicklaus recalls a time when the club pro and the PGA Tour player were not that far apart.

That was when several tour players also held club jobs, even if they were ceremonial positions. That was before golf became big business, when it went from the total purse being five figures to the winner's check being seven figures. When golf went from a way to make a living to a way to get rich.

"Can you imagine playing against Tiger Woods today, the average club pro trying to compete with him?" Nicklaus said a few years ago. "I used to play exhibitions, and the club pro, because he knew the course, had a chance to beat me. There isn't anybody who is going to beat Tiger or Phil or these guys today."

Lonny Alexander can attest to that.

He is playing the Texas Open this week in San Antonio, and it will be newsworthy if he even makes the cut.

The 39-year-old Alexander is the teaching pro at Onion Creek Golf Club in Austin, Texas. He also teaches 10 beginning golf classes to 300 students at Texas State in nearby San Marcos. He won the Southern Texas PGA section championship, which earned him a spot in the field at the Houston Open last month and the Texas Open this week.

Unlike other pros in the field, this is not his day job.

"Spring is my busiest time of the year. I teach for a living," Alexander said Tuesday. "You're almost sick about it. I've got to make a living, but I've got to get ready for these tournaments. The competitor in you says, 'Take off two weeks and practice.' The realistic side of you says, 'Hey, pards, you don't pay the bills that way.'"

Alexander shot rounds of 82-78 at the Houston Open to finish last, although three PGA Tour players withdrew after high scores in the opening round. For them, there's always another week. For the club pro, these chances don't come along very often.

This will be the eighth time Alexander plays a PGA Tour event, a tribute to how well he competes despite spending so much of his time giving lessons.

"I've had what people might call a lifetime of these experiences," he said. "I wish I could give that spot to everybody who does what I do."

For years, most PGA Tour events reserved three spots for club pros in the area. That recently was reduced to one spot because the competition on the PGA Tour became so great that the rank-and-file clamored for more playing opportunities.

It's important for club pros to be part of a PGA Tour event. Most of golf's stars wouldn't be where they are without a club pro at some stage in their career.

The results, however, speak to the growing divide. In eight tournaments this year, none of the club pros has made the cut, or even come particularly close.

Then again, it's not exactly a level playing field.

"There's such a separation of where we are as competitors and where the pros are that play every week," Alexander said. "That's no knock on what we do. We do a lot for the game. Our skill level as a club pro is higher than ever. But the skill level of the tour pro has gone through the roof."

Bob Ford knows that better than most, because he has lived through it.

He is going on his fourth decade as the head pro at venerable Oakmont Country Club, and he spends his winter as the head pro at Seminole Golf Club in south Florida. A year after he became head pro at Oakmont, he made the cut in the Bay Hill Classic. He twice finished among the top 40 in the U.S. Open, and twice made the cut at the PGA Championship. There was a time he didn't feel out of his league.

Just like Nicklaus, though, Ford has noticed the widening gap.

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