When he's on, Rich Steinmetz is one of the better golfers in Philadelphia. Last year he was the Philadelphia PGA Assistant Professional of the Year. Last week, at age 33--trailed by his wife, three kids and a busload of members from his club, Spring Ford Country Club in Royersford, Pa.--he found himself playing with the big boys for the first time in his life. He wasn't in Royersford anymore. When he arrived at Baltusrol on the Sunday before the PGA Championship, he parked his Honda in an unmarked spot that, unbeknownst to him, was earmarked for Tiger Woods. Naturally, his car was towed.
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He got into the field at Baltusrol the way two dozen of his guild brothers did, by finishing in the top 25 at this year's PGA Club Professional Championship. He had never played in a major before, or even in a Tour event, but there he was last week, on a 7,400-yard course with greens running at 12 on the stimpmeter and four-inch rough, paired with Steve Flesch and Tom Pernice, both two-time Tour winners. Steinmetz tried, bless his modest soul, to be himself and play his regular game. He hired a Baltusrol caddie, apologized to his playing partners when he had to play a shot backward, slipped into sandals at the end of his long, hot days and had a cold one with his wife, Heather, at the clubhouse bar after signing for an opening 81, the highest of last Thursday's scores. His reward for his unassuming manner was a snooty little gibe from Pernice, a member of the Tour's policy board. Pernice looked at an inadequate rake job by Steinmetz's caddie and said, "This isn't country club golf."
The gap, socially and athletically, between the 100 or so best players in the world and the club pros has never been wider, which is one reason that the PGA of America is reducing the number of spots for club professionals next year to 20. Last week Bob Ford, the head pro at Oakmont and Seminole, played with Charles Howell. (You could have built a Jersey Turnpike rest stop in the gap between their drives.) Ford expects that someday there will be only 10 club pros in the field, just enough to remain a presence and a reminder of who stages the event in the first place.
The Tour players acknowledge the importance of having club pros in the field, to honor the roots of the championship, but Jay Haas makes the point that other than the Club Professional Championship, there's no tournament in which he could qualify for a major by finishing in the top 25. The more common point is this: Is the general public paying $96 a ticket to see club pros struggle to shoot even par? Not likely.
This year Justin Rose, Corey Pavin and Tommy Armour III were on the alternate list, and Steinmetz, for one, felt they should have been playing. (On Thursday, Rose hauled his golf bag across the players' parking lot. His week over before it began.) It was 1948 when Claude Harmon, the head pro at Seminole in North Palm Beach, Fla., in winter and at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., in summer, took Ben Hogan's advice and stopped at Augusta on his drive north and won the Masters. Those days are gone. In six of the past 10 PGA Championships, no more than one club pro has made the cut, and none have had a top 10 finish since Tommy Bolt in 1971.
In an informal SI poll of about 40 Tour players and club professionals last week, the general consensus was that 20 was closer to the right number of club pros in the field. Armour, the grandson of another celebrated Winged Foot club pro, believes 10 is the right number, and he was not alone. Chris DiMarco, however, felt the number should not go below 25. Some club pros felt the number should still be 40, as it was through 1994.
This year four club pros made the cut, the most since 1994. There was Ron Philo Jr., with his pregnant kid sister Laura Diaz, the LPGA player, as his caddie, his small Titleist dual-strapped carry bag on her shoulders. ("All the way around, all I'd hear is, 'Nice bag,'" Diaz said.) There was Mike Small, the Illinois golf coach, who hits the ball like a Tour player but admits, with admirable candor, that he doesn't always think like one. There was Darrell Kestner, 52 years old, a true club pro who plays regular money matches with Tour players in Florida in the winter and often holds his own. And there was Steve Schneiter of Sandy, Utah, whose father and father's father played in the PGA Championship years ago. Schneiter, 41, has been in the field eight times since 1996, so he gets a lot of this from the Tour regulars: "Oh, you again." (It's said good-naturedly.)
In three generations the golf pros' profession has undergone a revolution. In Schneiter's grandfather's day, the club professional played well, repaired clubs, gave lessons: He was the embodiment of the game. Now, as in everything else in the world, specialists have taken over golf. A lot of the elite teaching is done at the golf seminaries. The really good players find a tour to play somewhere in the world. Many PGA club professionals, out of necessity, have become experts at selling clothing with logos.
Along the way, customs have been lost. Jeff Sluman, winner of the 1988 PGA championship, was once going low at his home course outside Chicago, Hinsdale Golf Club. The club's head pro owned the course record. When Sluman reached the 16th green, he picked up a short putt, so that his round would not be official and he wouldn't steal the home pro's thunder. "That's the right thing to do, don't you think?" Sluman, who is 47, asked rhetorically. But no player younger than Sluman who was interviewed last week was aware of that tradition.
For the most part the elite Tour players treat the club professionals cordially. Jeff Coston, of the Jeff Coston Golf Academy in Blaine, Wash., was on a buffet line in the players' dining room at Baltusrol, and Phil Mickelson was in front of him. He reintroduced himself to the 2004 Masters winner. He didn't need to. "I'll always remember you, Jeff," Mickelson said. "I was a 14-year-old standard-bearer for your group in the '85 Andy Williams San Diego Open. You played with Chris Perry and Steve Pate."
Still, Rick Schuller, a club pro from River's Bend Golf Country Club in Chester, Va., explained the social gap between top players and club pros: "The Tour pros have trainers, swing coaches, mind doctors. They go see them after they play. The club pros are happy to have a few beers and tell a few lies."
This year, for the first time, PGA officials included the low club pro in the awards ceremony, just as the other professional majors do with the low amateur. Philo, Small, Kestner and Schneiter ground it out on the weekend to see who would get the biggest check and the Heritage crystal that went with it. (To say nothing of the bonuses manufacturers would give them, enough to most likely double whatever they earned in prize winnings.) There could have been five club pros playing on the weekend, were it not for this horror story: Chip Johnson, a club pro from suburban Boston, made a birdie on his 17th hole on Friday to go to four over par, which turned out to be the cut number. Playing his final hole, the par-3 9th, Johnson shanked his tee shot with a three-iron, and his week was over. It was a costly shot. The last finisher to play 72 holes, Hal Sutton, earned $11,600. The low club pro, Schneiter, finished 40th and earned $22,300. Johnson, and everybody else who played only 36 holes, got $2,000.
Rich Steinmetz was among them. He followed his opening 81 with a second-round 77 to avoid dead last by a shot. (Two club pros, Craig Thomas and Tim Weinhart, shot 159 for 36 holes, respectable scores given Baltusrol's fierceness.) "I couldn't get comfortable over the ball," Steinmetz said. "I always felt as if my feet were in the wrong position or my hands were in the wrong position or something was wrong. I could not get comfortable."
His playing partner, Flesch, felt his pain. "He's a good player--he wouldn't be here if he wasn't," Flesch said. "He earned his place in the field like everybody else. But he's playing in a major, and he's playing it at Baltusrol. I played in my first major here, in the '93 U.S. Open. I was in way over my head. You look at the course and the other players and the event, and you say to yourself, Do I belong here?"
Next year, for the 20 club pros in the field at the PGA Championship at Medinah, the technical answer will be, Yes, they belong. Whether they'll feel comfortable or not, that's another thing.