PEABODY, Mass. – Another St. Louis native might best describe what it’s like for Jay Williamson to be inside the ropes at Salem Country Club this week. That is, as the late Yogi Berra once said, “It’s deja vu all over again.”
Or something like that.
Williamson spent 24 years as a professional golfer, made 377 PGA Tour starts and never won. In 2007, he lost a memorable playoff against Hunter Mahan at the Travelers, as each player hit clutch shots down the stretch. In 2008, Williamson and Brad Adamonis lost a playoff to Kenny Perry at the John Deere.
That’s as close as Williamson came. His sole victory on a major professional tour came at the 2007 Fort Smith Classic on what was then the Nationwide Tour.
In the language of sports, that record translates into “journeyman,” yet the lackluster connotation doesn’t apply. Williamson played baseball and hockey growing up. He finished his career as a catcher at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., with a .321 batting average and 18 home runs. As a forward on the hockey team, he scored 60 goals and 129 points.
Golf was not his passion, per se. But when he finished college, he gave it a whirl. He stayed out on the PGA Tour – among the best 125 players in the world – for the better part of 16 years. He collected nearly $6 million in career earnings, and did it the hard way. That’s some journey.
In 2011, with young kids at home, with international players changing the landscape, with life becoming more difficult for a 44-year old grinder, Williamson did the unselfish thing. He stood down, stowed the clubs and put on a tie. He went to work in the insurance business and, more recently, opened his own firm.
But here he is, years later, inside the ropes again, playing in the 2017 U.S. Senior Open (tee times: http://bit.ly/2u9RjGP).
“I’m excited,” Williamson said. “I had lunch with Tom Lehman, bumped into John Cook. I’ve had guys come up and say, ‘Oh, where did you go? I thought you like died or something.’ I mean, it’s been a lot of fun.”
Williamson tried his luck at Champions Tour Q-School last November. They say the Masters is the toughest ticket in sports, but try getting on the Champions Tour. Only the top five Q-School graduates get fully exempt status. Nos. 6-30 earn only access to tournament qualifying. Williamson tied for 24th.
“There’s a big difference between being eligible for the Champions Tour and being exempt,” Williamson said.
When he turned 50 in February, he tried Monday qualifying into the Champions Tour events in Florida – Boca Raton and Naples – but fell short. “And I kind of came to the realization that my heart’s just not in it,” he said.
More specifically, his heart is with his daughter, Whitney, who will be a freshman lacrosse player at Northwestern University, and at home with his two young sons and wife, Marnie.
But Senior Open qualifying at St. Louis’ Glen Echo Country Club on May 23 offered a different opportunity. A USGA championship is a nice place to visit; you don’t have to live there. That said, it was a serious challenge: 32 players for one spot.
Williamson shot 68, and so did Jay Delsing. Like Williamson, Delsing had a long PGA Tour career without winning: 0 for 565 starts. Like Williamson, he wanted to see old friends and get back on the horse. They went to a playoff hole. Delsing’s birdie putt hung on the lip. Williamson’s 10-footer dropped in. “I hated to do it to Jay,” Williamson said. “I really felt bad for him.”
Then again, Williamson feels good inside the ropes at Salem Country Club. Expectations? Let’s be real. He played in three U.S. Opens earlier in his career, including a tie for 20th in 2003. He has not been in the arena for some six years, hasn’t hit the balls, hasn’t swallowed hard.
But he feels good about his swing. And he has gone from putting right-handed to left-handed, with a much smoother stroke. “I always struggled putting,” he said. “I played hockey left-handed, so I thought, Why not?”
Most importantly, Williamson is not playing for his status or his livelihood. He’s just playing.
“I’m here for the week to enjoy the experience,” he said. “I’d love to play well. I’d love to compete. But if I don’t, you know what? It’s not the end of the world. Before, every week when I was playing, it felt like the end of the world.”