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.”