News & Opinion

Club pros deserve their spots in PGA Championship

Omar Uresti holds 2021 Walter Hagen Trophy as PGA Professional Championship winner
Omar Uresti, holding the Walter Hagen Trophy as the 2021 PGA Professional Championship winner, will lead 20 club-pro qualifiers into this week’s PGA Championship.

For every Omar Uresti-inspired loophole at PGA of America there are thousands of club professionals who deserve shot at big-time

Countless voices have weighed in over the years regarding the inclusion of club pros at the PGA Championship. When the shop guys tee it up with the big boys this week at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, the noise likely will become louder than usual, due largely to the return of Omar Uresti, who spent 11 full seasons on the PGA Tour and continues to play in a few events each year on ultra-limited status.

Uresti, who turns 53 in August, remains winless in 377 career starts in the land of silk and money. He has managed just 14 top-10 finishes on the Tour during a three-decade odyssey that includes a handful of minor-league victories and $4,758,048 in total earnings. More than 80 percent of that dough came from all those years he found an open seat on Camp Ponte Vedra’s gravy train.

Every Omar Uresti on this earth – players who live on the fringe between chronic obscurity and eternal security – should send Tiger Woods a thank-you card once a month. As journeymen go, the O-man is Lewis and Clark in a nice pair of slacks. There’s no shame in trying, especially when it pays well, but at some point in the mid-2010s, Uresti sought and received A-3 eligibility from the PGA of America, having been a dues-paying member of the organization since 1993 and, technically speaking, a 20-year Tour veteran.

We call this a loophole. After failing to qualify for even a single PGA Championship during his years in the big leagues, Uresti recast himself as a club pro who doesn’t work at a club. From there, one step back equaled several steps forward. His victory last month at the PGA Professional Championship was Uresti’s second in four years. He also was among the top 20 finishers in 2015, 2016 and 2018, which makes Kiawah his fifth trip to the PGA, a tournament that boasts the strongest field in golf on an annual basis.

Quite a bit stronger than the Masters, in fact. Stronger than the U.S. Open or British Open, which is why the PGA of America doesn’t have to explain itself for continuing to hold 20 spots for the dudes who sell shirts. Just as the greencoats at Augusta National treat their past champions like royalty, the governing body of 28,000 club pros has practiced longstanding loyalty with its ongoing commitment to the best players under its jurisdiction.

Those 20 guys amount to less than 13 percent of the 156 men scheduled to tee it up this week. Hardly enough to cause a stink down on Cynic Street, although Uresti’s presence certainly is an eyebrow-raiser. The separation of club pros and tour pros back in 1968 was designed ostensibly to prevent conflicts such as this. Why would the PGA of America forge some type of faulty certification clause into its bylaws and offer a safety net for millionaire golfers who are no longer competitively relevant?

It doesn’t make sense. Worse, it’s a backhanded way of deprioritizing those who make up the heart and soul of the operation. We’re talking about the assistant pro who makes $25,000 to wake up at 5 a.m. and, if he’s lucky, get home on the opposite end of darkness. The 35-year veteran who might play 15 times a year, who spends his summers trying to come up with a vaccine for an 18-handicap’s slice.

In no pragmatic context does Uresti qualify as a club pro. That said, he’s not breaking any rules, only taking advantage of a silly one. Is he less deserved of going to Kiawah than, say, Keith Mitchell, who needed a solo second in Charlotte to qualify for the PGA, then finished T-3? Hey, Mitchell entered that week 249th in the Official World Golf Ranking. There’s not a leg to stand on there.

And in case nobody noticed, all four majors have “weak patches” in their fields. The Masters, in yet another pledge to founder Bobby Jones and the time-honored reflex known as tradition, holds a half-dozen or so spots for winners of amateur tournaments that the membership considers to be important. Even if one goes to a 14-year-old Chinese kid who shows up with a long putter, which was the case in 2013 with Asia-Pacific Amateur champion Tianlang Guan.

Lo and behold, Guan made the cut. It’s not unusual for at least one club pro to advance to the weekend at the PGA; three did it in 2019. Uresti has survived beyond Friday just once in his four tries (2017) and finished T-73, but this whole issue is more about getting in, not playing to win.

The majors don’t need to flex their muscles. There’s plenty of that already on the grounds.

Given how the other two majors include the word “open” in their titles, the national championships of Great Britain and the United States feature multiple stages of qualifying, providing access to golfers who can only dream of playing on the PGA Tour, much less cashing a paycheck for a T-17 than most real-job folks make in a year. Not every professional tournament needs to stamp its approval on the premise that the rich absolutely have to get richer.

Golf was a game long before it became a luxurious form of livelihood. Although the PGA of America itself isn’t exactly allergic to money, it has reduced the number of club-pro exemptions over the years from 40 to 25 to 20, a total that went into effect in 2006, and 20 is where it should remain. That still allocates 136 spots for the big boys – about 60 more than the average Masters – while allowing the parent operation to continue observing its roots.

In other words, just leave well enough alone.

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