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Club pros get a taste of tour, and of reality

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.

"Back in the '60s, '70s and '80s, a lot of guys who were really good players decided to be club professionals, whether it was because there was not enough money or they didn't want to leave their families," Ford said. "There were a lot of opportunities to play as club pros. In today's world, most of those same guys choose to play full time because there's so much money."

The more money, the greater the competition. PGA Tour fields are deeper than they have ever been. Arjun Atwal won in Greensboro two years ago after going through a Monday qualifier. The quality of athletes is greater than it has ever been. Most players — Masters champion Bubba Watson is a true throwback — have a trainer, nutritionist, mental coach, swing coach, or all of the above.

Todd Camplin is the 38-year-old head pro at Pinehurst No. 7. He won a Carolinas section qualifier and earned a spot in the Heritage last week, shooting 77-82.

"Fantastic," he said. "Before I got into the business side of the industry, I tried to play for four or five years out of college and never got to play in a tour event. It was a fulfillment of dreams, really. It gives you a lot of respect for the game that those guys bring to the table every week."

Camplin estimates he played a total of 62 rounds last year — just more than once a week — including 35 rounds of competition in Carolina section events. PGA champion Keegan Bradley already has played 40 tournament rounds, and it's not even May.

For club pros like Camplin and Alexander, the ultimate is to get to the Professional National Championship, where the top 20 pros earn a spot in the PGA Championship. Four times in the last 15 years, none of the club pros made the cut at the PGA. The last club pro to crack the top 30 was Tom Wargo in 1992. He tied for 28th, and the next year won the Senior PGA Championship.

Nicklaus is right when he talks about the growing gap between the tour pro and the club pro. Or maybe he speaks from experience. Nicklaus competed against the resident club pro at Oakmont in the 1983 U.S. Open.

Ford beat him by four shots.