For 20 PGA Professionals, this week's PGA Championship is taking them from their actual day jobs back at their respective courses and allowing them to play with the game's elite
PITTSFORD, N.Y.— Chris Sanger walked off Oak Hill Country Club’s 18th green during a practice round before the PGA Championship and answered a few media questions, just like Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy or Jon Rahm might do.
But Scheffler, McIlroy and Rahm didn’t get asked a question like this: Who’s watching the golf shop today while you’re here?
"I don’t know, actually," Sanger says with a laugh. After further thought, he added, "I think it’s Don."
Sanger is one of 20 club professionals competing in the PGA Championship. He’s the head professional at the Woodstock Golf Club in New York. It’s a nine-hole track (less than 3,000 yards) with no practice facility and only one par-5 hole that is all of 463 yards. So it’s kinda-sorta not even really a par 5. And yes, it’s that Woodstock of concert fame, population 6,287 at last report. Sanger is 37, he’s from Red Hook, New York, and didn’t play college golf.
It all helps make Sanger the king of the underdogs. At Woodstock, Sanger puts in long hours because he is most of the club’s workforce. And, oh yeah, he’s got a wife and three young kids. So free time? Forget it. He made the PGA Championship by shakily sinking a short bogey putt on the final hole of the PGA Professional Championship two weeks earlier in New Mexico to squeeze into the field.
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Tuesday, he hit balls on Oak Hill’s practice range in between U.S. Open champ Matthew Fitzpatrick and two-time major champ Collin Morikawa, with McIlroy just two spots away. "It was an out-of-this-world moment," Sanger admits. "It was exciting."
Wednesday, on the eve of playing in his first major championship, Sanger says, "It has sunk in a little bit, especially seeing everybody you watch on TV every week. I’m definitely not used to these crowds. For some reason, I was a little claustrophobic up on the 14th hole. But it’s a blast to play in front of this many people, especially when they ask for your autograph for some reason."
Before this week, Sanger joked, "I probably signed two autographs in my whole life." Were they on personal checks, he was asked? He laughed.
All that matters is that Sanger is in the field this week. The fact that the club pros are badly overmatched against the world’s best players is not important. This event is an opportunity to showcase their skills and reward their hard work behind the scenes.
Can Chris Sanger win the PGA Championship? Not likely. Can Rory McIlroy set the pin positions for the weekly men’s league? Can Scottie Scheffler clean the golf carts and line them up for a shotgun start? Can Jon Rahm print out the scorecards for an outing with all the players’ names and the dots on each hole indicating where those amateurs get strokes according to their handicaps? The answers, in order, are no, not easily and probably not. The club pro lives in a different world from the tour pro.
Gabe Reynolds, 43, would be working at TopGolf Dallas if he hadn’t qualified for the PGA Championship. He’s been there for eight years and told The Dallas Morning News, "I’m used to giving eight golf lessons in a day, not grinding it out on a beautiful, super-difficult golf course like Oak Hill. This is a fantasy land. We’re at the Super Bowl. I get to be on the field."
Saturday, Sanger ran a club event at Woodstock. He arrived at the course at 6:30 a.m. and got all the golf carts out and lined up by himself. He printed all the event’s scorecards, using the popular Golf Genius app, and made sure they were on the correct carts. The tee times ran from 7:30 until 9 a.m.
When the event was done, Sanger checked the cards to confirm the scores — it was a quota format based on handicaps in which each player had to earn points. He took pictures of the winner, sent emails out about the results and spent the rest of the afternoon in the shop taking care of members who showed up to play golf later.
Oh, one other thing. He also had to clean the carts after the event.
"It was funny," Sanger says. "A couple of members came down by me and said, 'Not to be disrespectful or anything but here’s a guy who’s going to play the PGA next week and he’s here washing golf carts.'”
Braden Shattuck won the PGA National Club Professional Championship in New Mexico two weeks earlier. He is the director of instruction at Rolling Rock Golf Club near Philadelphia. He got home on a Thursday night, gave lessons Friday, then taught for 11 hours Saturday. His pro gave him last week off to rest and prepare for the PGA Championship, which was nice. But Shattuck is a prime example of how difficult it is to balance playing and working.
"I get about 30 minutes twice a week to hit balls, and maybe 10 minutes of putting," said Shattuck, 28, who estimates he works 50-plus hours a week. "That’s if I’m trying to prepare for a tournament. Otherwise, I may not touch a club at all."
How does a club pro find the time to get his own golf game in order? Every pro is different but for the most part, they do it in bits and pieces.
"I try to sneak out and play a few holes late in the day when I can," Sanger says. "I do have some good support there and my club general manager stepped up for me last the last couple of weeks when I was away, which was huge. I think every one of us, the 20 club professionals in this field, we come from different backgrounds and jobs. Some are instructors and on their feet ten hours a day, some are at their desks a lot, some of them might even have to pick balls on the range."
The range is a luxury Sanger doesn’t have. His club has no range. Asked where he practices, he answered, "On the course. In my head. Sometimes, in my garage."
He really did hit balls in his garage during the winter. And he doesn’t "practice-practice" on the course, Sanger says, he just plays a hole. Apparently, it worked. It got him to Oak Hill.
Chris French, the golf program manager at Aldeen Golf Club in Rockford, Illinois, returned from the national tournament after qualifying and was welcomed by 50 friends and co-workers lined up along the club’s driveway. "That was pretty cool," French says.
The next day, he was back on the tee giving lessons, business as usual for the 37-year-old. He also does scheduling. Aldeen has a big operations staff of close to 50 people. "I’ve got a lot of help," said French, a Rockford native who worked at the club for nine years.
Could a tour player such as Rory McIlroy step into your job for a day, French was asked? "I’m sure he could figure it out," French says. "He’s going to struggle with that schedule. The first guy who doesn’t show up, Rory isn’t going to know how to call him and figure out what’s going on."
Colinn Inglis, of Oregon’s Shadow Hills Country Club, is playing in his second straight PGA Championship. He qualified for last year’s tournament at Southern Hills. Balancing his game with work is smoke and mirrors.
"We have PGA Junior League starting next week so I was answering emails Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday," Inglis said Thursday after his first round at Oak Hill. "You’re never really away-away. It’s tough. I’m working in the shop, giving lessons, I do most of the merchandising and buying — I don’t play a whole lot. And I’ve got two kids.
"The practice rounds here were huge. It’s not just learning the course, it’s trying to find my game in three or four days. We had a bad winter in Oregon, so I went to New Mexico four days early for the national club pro so I could get four rounds in."
It worked, obviously. He made it to the PGA Championship.
Josh Speight of Virginia’s The Club at Viniterra has held several positions at several clubs. He was a head pro, then an assistant pro, now he is a director of instruction. He also has two kids, ages 1 and 2, so his free time is at a premium. He went deeper into teaching so he could make his own schedule.
“I really like instruction, I just decided to make that what I do,” he says.
He teaches five days a week, normally. He is still challenged to find time to work on his game. At the National Club Professional Championship in New Mexico, he finished his final round at 2 p.m., waited three hours to find out he made the PGA. He got home at midnight Thursday, then cut the grass, cleaned and did laundry the next day. He played in a section event the following Monday and Tuesday, gave seven hours of lessons Wednesday and Thursday, played in a charity event Friday and left for Oak Hill Saturday.
“It’s been nuts,” Speight said. “It’s tough for all of us who work. Jon Rahm or Scottie Scheffler, they could probably help a player if they had my job. To be a good instructor, though, you’ve got to be able to say the same thing seven different ways until it sticks with the student. These guys only know their way and that’s why they’re the best in the world. I’m not saying they couldn’t do it but they’ve only got one job. I’ve got dad, lawn caretaker, golf pro, playing pro, laundry person, all that.”
This week counts as a bonus in many ways to the club pros but it comes at a cost, literally. Sanger was among several club pros, including Wyatt Worthington II, who raised money through GoFundMe.com to pay for expenses to the national championship in New Mexico and this week in Oak Hill.
For Sanger, the PGA Championship was a little cheaper to attend. It was a 250-mile drive from Woodstock.
“This whole experience has been great,” Sanger says. “The greatest thing was probably getting the keys to the courtesy car. It’s a Cadillac Escalade.”
Are you driving that or sleeping in it this week, he was jokingly asked?
"I should stay in it, there’s enough room," he says, laughing. “I could put a little air mattress in the back."
It’s not easy being a club professional but, for the lucky 20 who make it to the PGA Championship, life is pretty grand … for a week.