Over Their Heads The club pros who crashed the PGA party had a blast while taking their predestined lumps

August 22, 1999

Twilight had nearly morphed into darkness as Steve Schneiter
reluctantly left the 18th green, the last player off Medinah
Country Club's No. 3 course in the PGA Championship's second
round. It was the symbolic stroke of midnight for most of the
nation's top club professionals, those who made the annual
pilgrimage to the PGA to proudly tee it up with the world's
finest touring professionals. They performed pretty darn well
for a bunch of working stiffs, but the harsh reality is that
they are not up to this level of competition.

Lanky Bruce Zabriski was the only one of the 25 club
professionals competing at Medinah to make the cut--and the
first club pro in three years to accomplish that feat. Zabriski,
42, the head pro at Donald Trump's new club at West Palm Beach,
Fla., and the four-time national club pro player of the year,
finished 68th after an opening-round 70. Schneiter and Bob Ford,
the pro at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, were next best, missing
the cut by two strokes, a small margin when you also consider
the vast differences in the tracks that they and the millionaire
Tour pros are accustomed to playing. "We don't have golf courses
in Utah that compare to this," said Schneiter, who works at his
family's executive course and driving range in Sandy, Utah. He
looked up at trees towering 100 feet or more over Medinah's 18th
green and added, "We don't have a tree this high in the state of
Utah."

For the club pros, who earn their berths in the PGA Championship
by virtue of their play in the Club Pro Championship, which this
year was held at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., in late
June, the adjustment is simply too great. "It's like an exam,"
said Atlanta-area pro Stephen Keppler. "You qualify, and you've
got a month to prepare. It's a great experience, but it's tough
coming into a championship course. I've made it three times and
never felt comfortable with my game when I got here."

Wayne DeFrancesco, a teaching pro in Pikesville, Md., failed to
make the cut at Medinah, shooting 78-76, but was the only club
pro to do so in 1995 at Riviera. "It's the greatest thing on my
resume," said DeFrancesco. "If somebody wants to know whether I
can play, all they have to know is I beat half the field in a
major championship and played all four rounds. To make the PGA
cut is very, very big."

For many club pros, teeing it up in the PGA Championship is like
vying for an Oscar--the nomination is award enough. Working for
a living doesn't leave enough time to hone a competitive edge,
but it does provide a perspective most Tour pros don't have.
Consider 43-year-old Ron Stelten, who grew up caddying at
Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minn., and later chased his pro
dream on the European tour for eight years, winning twice in
Switzerland. He once lived in a friend's basement in Frankfurt,
another time stayed at an apartment near Paris, still another
time boarded at a luxury hotel in Monte Carlo because the casino
manager was a golf fanatic who loved Stelten's tales of the
tour. "I was way too poor to actually be living there," Stelten
says.

Stelten left the European tour in midseason in 1992 so that he
and his wife, Robin, could go to Peru to adopt a baby, a
daughter they named Andrea. The trip was an ordeal. Their flight
to Lima was one of the last to leave Miami's airport before
Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida. The adoption procedure,
which should have taken a few weeks, took six months. A bombing
campaign and attempted revolution by the terrorist group Shining
Path all but stopped the wheels of bureaucracy, preventing the
Steltens from leaving with their daughter. "It was 'one more
week, one more week, one more week,' for six months," Stelten
said. "The bureaucrats moved slowly because they didn't know who
would win this power struggle and didn't want to be on the wrong
side. Andrea was a pawn in a political struggle."

The family finally made it to the States, and Stelten started
playing the Nike tour, only to stop a few months later when his
wife lost ground in her long battle with manic depression. She
subsequently took her own life. "Life is going to hit all of us
hard at some point," he said. "I had mine. Those were dark days
for a while."

A professional golfer's lifestyle didn't fit with being a
devoted single parent. For the next few years Stelten took jobs
when he could, often working as a golf host--a forecaddie,
really--at Bighorn Golf Club in the Palm Desert area for $100 a
round. "If I couldn't get Andrea to school or pick her up, I
didn't work," Stelten said. "I just tightened my belt as much as
I could." Stelten's engaging personality and European tour
experience made him a hit as a golf host. Most groups he went
out with preferred listening to his stories or watching him hit
shots to having him hunt for their golf balls in the desert.
That led to his current gig as a corporate outing
organizer-entertainer. He spends summers in Taos, N.Mex.,
winters in Palm Springs. You want an outing, he does the rest:
books the course, gives instruction, plays along, tells stories,
basically works the room.

Stelten is about to be a family man once again. His new fiancee,
Pamela, has two children, 10 and 8, to go with Andrea, now seven.
He still dreams. He hopes to try this fall's PGA Tour qualifier
again. At Medinah, however, he found the rough far too often and
shot 77-79 to miss the cut.

Except for the sweet-swinging Zabriski, the club pros left
Chicago disappointed. Schneiter headed back to work on Monday in
Utah to mow fairways and change cups. DeFrancesco returned to
Maryland to give lessons and get ready to work for Zabriski as a
teaching pro at Trump's club this winter. Keppler, who joined
Ernie Els and Tom Watson for a memorable day of practice last
week, was due back at Summit Chase Country Club in suburban
Atlanta. His big regret about his week in Chicago was that he
couldn't score tickets for a taping of the Jerry Springer Show.
Minnesota pro Scott Spence, whose father died five months ago,
carried his dad's ashes in a film canister in his bag; after
missing the cut, he planned to travel to the Leatherstocking
Golf Course in Cooperstown, N.Y., to sprinkle the ashes on the
par-5 18th, his dad's favorite hole. "It's respect. He's part of
me," said Spence, 43, of Burl Oaks Country Club, who envisions
being memorialized at the same hole. "My boys can dump me right
there, too...but hopefully, not too soon."

Stelten left for sectional qualifying this week in Southern
California, the first step to get back into next year's Club Pro
Championship and after that, he hopes, the 2000 PGA Championship
at Valhalla in Louisville. "The PGA is the focal point of the
year," Stelten said as he ducked into Medinah's locker room to
pack his belongings. "I'll always keep trying. Why would I
stop?"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM GUND Clubbed pro Spence took his frustrations out on himself at Medinah while planning a tribute to his late father at a different course. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN BIEVER (2) Mixers Stelten (above) mingled with the fans, while Zabriski did likewise with the postcut elite.

For most of the club pros, teeing it up in the PGA is like vying
for an Oscar--the nomination is award enough.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)