For the club professionals who qualified, making the PGA Championship field was the reward for countless hours on the range before or after their day at the “office.”
I’m not sure if it was the time of the year, the venue or the star-studded leaderboard, but the 2021 PGA Championship held my attention from the opening tee shot to the final putt on the 72nd hole.
When I was growing up, the PGA Championship was contested in August and was widely considered the “fourth major.” This was not just because of its place in the annual rotation of tournaments, but because of its perceived relative standing. The Masters has always been extremely prestigious and signaled the beginning of spring, and the U.S. Open and British Open championships were often the toughest tests of the year on some daunting layouts.
This year, however, I began thinking about the PGA Championship ahead of its May 20 start (which reflected a new scheduling position that should help the tournament gain more prominence and prestige). Because of my role covering the private club, daily-fee course and resort industry, I took special notice of the PGA Professional Championship, which was played on the Wanamaker and Ryder Courses at the PGA Village Golf Resort in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Won by former PGA Tour professional Omar Uresti, the top 20 finishers—dubbed the #TeamOf20—earned a spot in the major tournament.
Unlike Uresti, the majority of PGA Professionals competing in that qualifying event had never played on the PGA Tour. While they are all highly skilled and accomplished golfers, they’ve made their living in the club industry—working long hours giving lessons, running tournaments and outings, fitting members for equipment, and selling merchandise in the pro shop.
For many PGA Professionals, playing in the qualifying tournament was a dream come true. For the #TeamOf20, making the PGA Championship field was the reward for countless hours on the range before or after their day at the “office.” And for a pair of them—Brad Marek and Ben Cook—that dream was extended into the weekend.
While Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas—Nos. 1 and 2 in the Official World Golf Ranking—missed the cut at Kiawah Island (S.C.) Golf Resort’s Ocean Course, Cook, the PGA Director of Instruction at Yankee Springs Golf Course in Wayland, Mich., and Marek, who runs his own junior golf academy out of Alameda, Calif.’s Corica Park, stayed the weekend. Cook finished at 4-over for the tournament to earn “low club pro” honors.
At 50 years old, Phil Mickelson made history by becoming the oldest golfer to win a major championship, firing a 6-under 282 to outlast what was the deepest field of the year. But it may have been the course that emerged as the star.
Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course is no stranger to golf and has hosted the PGA Championship as recently as 2012 (won by Rory McIlroy) and the 1991 Ryder Cup, named the “War By the Shore.” This year seemed different, though. Social media was flooded with calls to make the course a regular stop for the championship. Calling it the “Pebble Beach of the East,” unpredictable winds and acres upon acres of “sandy areas” (not bunkers) made the Pete and Alice Dye design a media darling.
The PGA Championship heads to Tulsa, Okla.’s Southern Hills Country Club in 2022. There’s no guarantee of a record-breaking winner, but for 20 PGA club professionals, there will be a memorable experience, a break from their “9-to-5,” and a reward for countless hours of hard work and dedication.