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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

‘I Prefer It This Way’: How Life Works for PGA Club Pros

  • There are no private jets or million-dollar equipment deals for these major qualifiers.
  • Whether they make or miss the cut, they’ll return to teaching, booking tee times, and selling merchandise in the pro shop.
Michael Block signs autographs on the 18th hole during day three of practice for the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club on Wednesday, May 15, 2024.
Clare Grant/Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK
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Ben Polland, one of 156 players who teed it up at the PGA Championship on Thursday, recently cashed a $60,000 check for winning the qualifying tournament that earned him a spot in golf’s second major of the year. 

The PGA Professional Championship, which concluded May 1, featured 312 club pros from 41 PGA sections across the U.S., and Polland, along with 19 other certified PGA of America teaching professionals, sealed a trip to Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville.

Polland’s drive home from Frisco, Texas, to Wyoming with his fiancé included five hours through a blizzard and a pit stop in Salt Lake City to pick up a puppy. He didn’t have much time to pick up a golf club for his fourth PGA Championship appearance in the ensuing days because his home course, Shooting Star Jackson Hole, was getting ready to open a few days later. 

That’s life for club pros like Polland, whose full-time job includes teaching lessons, booking tee times over the phone, and selling merchandise in the golf shop. And it’s what makes the PGA Championship the most unique event in golf, if not in all professional sports, when non-Tour players get to tee it up alongside the likes of Tiger Woods, Scottie Scheffler, and Brooks Koepka. 

If it sounds wild, it’s because it is. 

Imagine the director of basketball at your local YMCA getting an invite to the NBA’s Three-Point Contest, or a semipro baseball player competing in MLB’s Home Run Derby. But it’s not an exhibition: The club pros, who have devoted their post-collegiate careers to becoming experts in the field of golf, are in a major field, with a chance at making a cut and earning more than their annual salary in a single paycheck.

“There are really only like two events that I can justify getting away from how busy our summer schedule is—the size of the purse or the points or what it’s a qualifier for,” says Polland, 33, who competes sparingly in his Rocky Mountain sector. The former Campbell University player spent some time on mini-tours after finishing school in 2013, but says he barely broke even during his final season, despite winning a tournament and finishing in the top 10 at the year’s end. 

“I’m happy with what I did,” Polland (below) says. “Right now, I’m more comfortable having a full-time job where I know that I’m going to be paid every week, as opposed to being paid only for how I play. I prefer it this way. If I have the opportunity to compete or play in tournaments, I’ll focus on those opportunities as opposed to making it my full-time thing.”

PGA of America

Tracy Phillips has a few years over his counterparts. Once the top-ranked junior in the nation, he played at Oklahoma State in the 1980s before taking 20 years away from golf following an injury. Now, at 61, Phillips was the oldest man in the field after qualifying for his first PGA Championship. Normally, he stays busy teaching 45 to 55 lessons each week back home, just outside of Tulsa. “That’s what helps pay the bills,” he says. 

Two or three competitive events in his PGA section is all he has time for most years: “There’s quite a bit of expense to go play in those, and you hope to play well enough to break even, or maybe even make a little bit of money on the side.”

After the final putt drops Sunday evening at Valhalla Golf Club, the PGA Championship will hand out some $18.5 million in prize money. The PGA of America, which organizes the tournament, likes to dub it the “strongest field in golf.” This year, that included 99 of the top-100-ranked players in the world—something none of the other three majors can claim.

Making the cut is the ultimate goal for any club pro at the PGA Championship—even though most of them don’t. (Two of them were successful this year: Braden Shattuck and Jeremy Wells.) “As much as I don’t agree with it, I think there’s a lot of people out there that think that we shouldn’t get exempt into a major championship,” says Larkin Gross, a 23-year-old from Vienna, Va., who played at Division-III Methodist University and made his second PGA Championship appearance. “And I think a lot of people don’t realize that we can really play.”

Of course, it’s rare, and it’s the reason why a Southern California club pro named Michael Block became a household name a year ago at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. Block not only made it to the weekend at the 2023 PGA Championship, but he also played the final round with Rory McIlroy, made a hole-in-one, and finished tied for 15th. 

A man who was making a living teaching golf lessons for $150 an hour earned $288,333 in one weekend.

For Polland, Gross, Phillips, Block, and the other club pros this week, there are no private jets or million-dollar equipment deals.

But there are incredible storylines. Last year, the PGA of America wanted to better highlight and support those stories so it signed up Corebridge Financial to start sponsoring its heralded “Team of 20.” The firm helps the players with travel logistics, and offers them a small monetary payment in exchange for opting in to wearing the brand’s logo throughout the championship.

But whether the club pros are still playing on the weekend or sticking around as observers, the PGA Championship annually offers the most high-stakes competition they can get. Beyond that, it also creates a sense of community. “We all want to do well for ourselves, but we’re all kind of rooting for each other, too, to validate the fact that we deserve to be there,” says Gross, who is a good friend of Block.

PGA of America

While the PGA Championship is a special time for the club pros, no matter their performance, it’s not the end of the road. So, as a winner gets crowned at Valhalla on Sunday evening, life goes on for everyone else—and that’s O.K.

Club pros that earn a spot in the PGA Championship also advance to the final round of qualifying for the U.S. Open. 

So, on June 3, they’ll return to the pressure cooker of qualifying, with the option of competing in 36-hole events at nine sites across the country, trying to outlast hundreds of others looking for the last few spots in the third major championship of the year, where at least $20 million in prize money is expected to be up for grabs.

Phillips (above) won’t be able to make any U.S. Open qualifying dates, though. That’s because they conflict with next week’s Senior PGA Championship, which he’s playing in, and a day in June when he’ll be attempting to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open. Those events for golfers age 50+ have proved to be fruitful for Phillips: He’s made the cut in the previous two Senior PGAs and cashed a $50,000 check for a T-17 finish in 2022. That same year, he also finished 24th in the U.S. Senior Open—good for roughly $36,000. 

Where does that prize money go? “College tuition,” says Phillips, whose daughter is a rising junior at Oklahoma.

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