SALT LAKE CITY — When the PGA Tour starts back up Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas, for the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club, three local golfers will be competing in what will be a historic golf tournament of sorts.

It’s the first PGA Tour tournament in more than three months since the coronavirus shut down all sporting events around the world as well as much of society. Unless you count NASCAR and Motocross, it’s the first live major sporting event to be contested in the United States.

Of the three local golfers entered, two are obvious — Tony Finau and Zac Blair, two native Utahns who are exempt members of the PGA Tour. The other is a 60-year-old who hasn’t made a dime on the PGA Tour in nearly 20 years.

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That would be Keith Clearwater, a former BYU All-American, who has lived most of his life in Utah before recently moving back to his home state of California, where he and his wife can be closer to their four children and seven grandchildren near San Diego.

So how is Clearwater teeing it up with the best golfers in the world this week?

Clearwater is in the 148-player field because he won the tournament back in 1987 when it was called the Colonial National Invitational. By winning, when he closed with a pair of 64s to beat Davis Love III by three strokes, he gained a lifetime exemption for the tournament, which he has used every year but one since his victory at the age of 27.

Keith Clearwater hits out of a bunker during the first round of Siegfried & Jensen Utah Open at Talons Cove Friday August 25, 2006. | Dnews

“I’ve played in it 33 times — I don’t think anyone else can say that,” Clearwater said this week from Texas as he prepares for his annual visit to the famed Colonial layout. “This is the longest-running regular event on the PGA Tour (since 1946). It’s such an amazing atmosphere. It’s just a great place with southern hospitality — truly, it’s unmatched. Every player that plays here will tell you that.”

The list of former champions is a who’s who of every top golfer from the past 70 years, except for Tiger Woods, who has usually skipped the event, only playing in it once in his career. Ben Hogan won the event five times, Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Nick Price and Ben Crenshaw won it twice, while Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson have each won it once.

“It’s an incredible list of players,” Clearwater said. “It’s a fun thing to make that little speck of history and to be a part of that is pretty neat. It’s a real privilege to be involved in that.”

Because it’s the first tournament back on the PGA Tour schedule since early March, the tournament will have perhaps its best field in years with most of the top players in the game. Woods decided to skip it again, but Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm, Sergio Garcia, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, Bryson DeChambeau and Mickelson are all in the field 

Clearwater played a practice round Tuesday with Mickelson a day after playing with DeChambeau, who Clearwater is convinced will be the next big thing in golf (“Bryson is going to be top five in the world for years to come,” he said).

For Clearwater, it’s a thrill to be able to still rub shoulders with the young phenoms and “stay in touch with the game.” He hit balls next to McIlroy on the range Tuesday and was amazed to see how pure and long he hits it.

“When you’ve been away from the competitive, regular tour life and then you can put yourself back in it, it’s really a privilege. It’s really fun to watch and to be right in the middle of it.” — Keith Clearwater

“When you’ve been away from the competitive, regular tour life and then you can put yourself back in it, it’s really a privilege,” he said. “It’s really fun to watch and to be right in the middle of it.”

Clearwater hasn’t made the cut at Colonial since 2001 and most years he hasn’t come close. However, last year he came very close, shooting 71-74 and missing by just three strokes. He was just one shot off the cut line with five holes left, but made a double-bogey coming in.

Even though he hasn’t won money on the regular PGA Tour since 2001 and has only had a spotty career on the Champions Tour since 2009, Clearwater is not uncomfortable to be taking up a spot at Colonial and believes some of his best golf is yet to come. 

“I barely missed the cut last year, and I’ll play as long as I’m still competing,” he said. “As long as I’m putting up decent scores and not shooting in the 80s. If I wasn’t competitive I wouldn’t come out to be a ceremonial player. I’ve worked really hard on my game, it’s good. I want to make the cut and even do better. It’s being smart enough to get around and putt well.”

Ah putting. That’s been the bugaboo for Clearwater for much of his career.

‘I have not had a chance at putting for 10 years,” he said. “Truly, an 8-year-old junior golfer could beat me by 10 on the putting greens I was so lost. I was giving away seven shots a round. I was actually playing some of the best golf of my life. I’d hit 17 greens and have it close eight times and shoot 72, where it should have been a 64. It’s hard to keep putting in effort without a result.”

However, the always-confident Clearwater said he’s “figuring some things out” with his putting and says “it’s fun again.”  

“I barely missed the cut last year, and I’ll play as long as I’m still competing. As long as I’m putting up decent scores and not shooting in the 80s. If I wasn’t competitive I wouldn’t come out to be a ceremonial player.” — Keith Clearwater

The tournament, which begins Thursday morning and runs through Sunday, is being played without fans and with strict guidelines in place, including regular testing of all the players and anyone else involved with the tournament.

Clearwater sees both positive and negative aspects of the tournament being played without galleries.

“It’s this little private tournament that’s closed to everybody but the players and they can go out and compete. It’s a unique thing.”

On the other hand, he acknowledges, “The intensity of competing with fans is missing.”

Clearwater will tee off Thursday at 1:01 p.m. MDT with Kramer Hickok and amateur Andy Ogletree. Finau goes off at 12:17 p.m. MDT with Matt Kuchar and Webb Simpson, while Blair tees at 11:22 a.m. MDT with Harold Varner III and Scottie Scheffler.

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Finau and Blair both told the Deseret News earlier this spring that they have appreciated the break from golf, but are excited to get going again.

While this might be Clearwater’s last PGA Tour event until next spring when he can come back to Colonial, he still has golf aspirations, however unrealistic they may seem to others.

“I still have this belief and dream,” he said. “I want to be the best player at this age to ever play. I’d like to get in some regular tour events and have a chance to win. I know if I can do certain things better, that’s a possibility.

“I’ve been a huge underachiever, mainly because of the putting. I feel like I’ve worked hard on it. I’m keeping my body in shape, nothing hurts and I have no excuses. If I can work hard and get after it there’s no reason I can’t do great things.”

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