Club pros compete with best at PGA Championship

Last time Rob Labritz checked, the YouTube video of the shot of
his golfing life had more than 7,000 views.

He isn’t sure that quite counts as viral, but the way he
qualified for his fourth PGA Championship has Labritz seeing good
omens everywhere.

Labritz is one of the PGA professionals who earned spots this
week at Oak Hill by finishing in the top 20 at their national
championship in Oregon in late June. He and three others were
competing in a playoff for the last spot when he holed a wedge shot
from 95 yards.

His wife is eight months’ pregnant, his mother was declared
cancer-free just last week, so why shouldn’t he set a goal for a
top-15 finish?

”I just want to keep riding the wave,” Labritz said Wednesday,
a day before teeing off in the first group of the PGA
Championship.

For these 20 pros, golf is their job, but they often work on
everything but their game. Rod Perry, who won this year’s PGA
Professional National Championship, estimates he maybe plays once a
week.

”I might play on a Friday afternoon with one of the member’s
groups, or I might play in a section event maybe on a Monday or
something like that,” said the 39-year-old Perry, the head pro at
Crane Lakes in Port Orange, Fla. ”But I know there was a couple
stints over the winter where two or three weeks would go by and I
wouldn’t play at all.”

Mike Small’s job carries different demands but the same
conundrum – a lot of time around the course but not much playing.
He’s the men’s golf coach at Illinois, the runner-up at this year’s
NCAA Championships.

Small played a practice round Wednesday with former Illini
teammate Steve Stricker and one of his former players, Luke
Guthrie.

Small has a much longer playing resume than many of his
competitors in Oregon – he was on the PGA Tour in the 1990s and is
in his ninth PGA Championship and 12th major. He was the low PGA
pro in 2007 and ’11.

Still, this is just Small’s third tournament of the year as a
player. He’d like to practice more with his Illini, but it often
just doesn’t work out.

Since qualifying in late June, he’s held two camps and hit the
road for three recruiting trips.

However rare, entering tournaments is worth it. The competition.
The break from the routine of the job. The chance to learn from the
best players and toughest courses.

”It’s part of who I am,” Small said.

Oh, and it doesn’t hurt in recruiting.

”It differentiates us from other teams. Each program has its
own niche, and this is ours,” he said, an orange ”I” plastered
on his cap, shirt and bag.

Labritz generally plays in 10-15 events a year. The owners and
members at GlenArbor in Bedford Hills, N.Y., about 45 miles north
of New York City, enjoy seeing him representing the club well.

”I’ve got probably one of the best jobs on the planet,” he
said. ”They allow me to play and practice as much as I feel I need
to keep my game at the highest level.”

But a berth in the PGA Championship looked unlikely on the
second playoff hole June 26. Six players had started the playoff
for three spots, and two qualified with birdies on the first
hole.

Labritz then found himself with a bad lie when his tee shot
landed in a fairway bunker. He had to punch out while the other
three played onto the green on the par-4 11th at Sunriver.

He wound up being the only player to birdie the hole. Labritz
celebrated with a swinging fist pump and leaping high-five, a clip
that made its way onto ESPN.

Labritz received thousands of emails of congratulations and
admiration through his website, many from people he’d never
met.

The only club pro to make the cut at the 2010 PGA Championship
at Whistling Straits, this acknowledged late bloomer is confident
he can compete this week at age 42. He played a practice round
Tuesday with Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley and Jason Dufner.

”You know what?” Labritz said. ”There wasn’t any
difference.”