Playing in the PGA Championship at 61, golf teacher's biggest lesson is the power of perseverance

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — At first glance, it’s easy to pick out the most unlikely entrant in golf’s second major of the year. He’s a 61-year-old club pro out of Oklahoma named Tracy Phillips.

A deeper look at Phillips’ pedigree suggests the only fluke about the 5-foot-4 golf instructor teeing it up at the PGA Championship this week is that it took him 40 years longer to get here than anyone expected.

“It got to the point where I just didn’t like the game at all,” Phillips said in explaining his long, winding road to a Thursday tee time at Valhalla, which included a 20-year break from competitive golf during what would have been his prime.

More than four decades after he was ranked as the best junior golfer in America, Phillips is one of the 20 club pros who qualified to play in this year’s PGA.

Back in 1980, his top ranking was bolstered by a win at the PGA Junior Championship. Phillips was headed for a full ride at Oklahoma State and was fully expecting to play on the PGA Tour once he was done with college.

He had a short game that made everyone stop and look.

“The next person I played with who was doing the same kind of stuff with a wedge in their hand was Seve” Ballesteros, said longtime PGA Tour veteran Scott Verplank, an OSU teammate of Phillips.

Ballesteros went on to win two Masters and three British Opens with a short game viewed by many as the best ever. Phillips ended up with a herniated disk that led to the loss of his swing. Years of searching — both in his soul, and for his golf game — ensued.

“I struggled being able to find a golf course off the tee box,” he said.

Eventually, he gave up on becoming a touring pro.

“It was going from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, basically,” Phillips said. “And completely falling out of love with the game.”

The reason he kept the clubs nearby was because his dad, Buddy, was the long-serving, magnetic head pro at Cedar Ridge Country Club in Tulsa. As a kid, Tracy would go with his dad in the mornings to open the shop, then spend the day putting and chipping and playing.

Lessons learned from his dad — from the hard work in the shop, and also on the range — kept Tracy very much tied into golf. He caddied for Kelli Kuehne on the LPGA Tour. He got into the teaching biz himself, which is how he makes a living to this day. Last week, Phillips had lessons on the calendar, never mind that he was trying to get ready for Valhalla — a monster of a course he had not stepped foot on until this week.

As much as the course is set up for the Scottie Schefflers, Jon Rahms and Rory McIlroys of the world, the tournament itself is a tip of the cap to guys like Michael Block — the club pro who is back after finishing 15th last year — along with Phillips and the rest of the club pros who keep this sport running at the grassroots on a day-to-day basis.

Not to be confused with the PGA Tour, the PGA of America, which runs this tournament, is the organization that supports the men and women who work behind the counters at munis and country clubs selling shirts, tracking inventory and giving lessons.

Pros like Phillips, in turn, are there for club players and weekend hackers, so many of whom have, at some point, come to a teacher like him in search of a tip, a thought, an answer — anything to help them save a stroke or conquer their struggles.

“I’ve had a lot of help myself,” Phillips said.

Among those he credits are a friend named Billy Ray Young who “didn’t call himself a sports psychologist but really is;” and another Tulsa-area club pro, Vince Bizik, who got him involved in some friendly, high-level Monday games that helped Phillips rediscover the kind of player he could really be after some two decades in the wilderness.

Also, a golf video.

In a turn of events that will leave most golfers nodding in appreciation, Phillips said something clicked while he was watching an instructional video by George Gankas, an online teacher who generated buzz when one of his students, Matthew Wolff, was peaking in 2020.

“As a teacher, I’m leery of saying, ‘This guy read this magazine article or this guy watches these videos and it helped him a lot,’” Phillips said. “That can do some damage if it’s not the right match for what a person needs. But for me, it was really good because it worked out for what I needed in my golf swing.”

Since picking up the clubs again, Phillips has been in four Senior PGAs, with a fifth scheduled for later this month.

This week, however, is his first major with the players from the regular tour — a well-used mulligan in a game that is stingy about second chances.

“At 61, he’s getting the last laugh,” Verplank said. “I’m sure he’ll have a smile on his face the whole time he’s there and he should enjoy every minute. And maybe he’ll play good.”


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