Club Pros Take a Break to Get Tested in Kiawah Island

By: Marino Parascenzo

[Editor's Note: Cybergolf's Jay Flemma and Marino Parascenzo are in South Carolina for this week's PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. Here's Marino's first report.]

Darrell Kestner ordinarily would be tending the shop and the lesson tee back at Deepdale Golf Club in Manhasset, N.Y., but for this particular week he was teeing it up with the top-feeders in the PGA Championship.

Which leads to the annual paraphrased question: What's a nice guy like Kestner doing in a place like this? A club pro in the fast lane? There were, in fact, 20 club pros in the field in the last of the season's four majors, at the powerful Ocean Course.

Kestner, a guy with a chest full of ribbons as a club pro, did okay in the first round, shooting a 3-over-par 75 on the 7,676-yard course. That tied him with, among others, Bill Haas and England's perennial challenger in majors, Lee Westwood. But the ocean winds came up in Friday's second round, and blew Kestner away like many others in the field. But for a guy nearing his 59th birthday, he didn't do badly, shooting an 80. That would miss the cut - his 10th miss in 10 tries - sweeping him out with, among others, such PGA Tour stars as Matt Kuchar, Rickie Fowler, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and U.S. Open champ Webb Simpson.

"Nervous - very nervous start," Kestner was saying. "But I was nervous in my first PGA." That was in 1988. "Jack Nicklaus said it," Kestner offered. " 'If you're not nervous on the first hole of a major, then you must not really care.' "

Kestner got into this field as one of the low 20 scorers in the 2012 PGA Professional National Championship - the championship for club pros. Time was when there were only club pros in the PGA Championship. For them, back then, it was the only game in town.

Some Background

The PGA Championship - as nifty a business deal as you will ever see - was first played in 1916 as the flagship competition of what at the time were the only real pro golfers of the land. These were the club pros, the guys who gave lessons, tended the pro shop and, when time permitted, played in whatever tournaments were played. There weren't many.

The PGA Championship was their championship, for all of them. In this, the 94th playing, it's still their championship, except that now there are only 20 of them in the field. They are a token group left over from a different time. Time and commerce have taken their toll.

The PGA, as it is commonly known, is the last of the four majors, following the Masters in April, the U.S. Open in June and the British Open in July. These four, the most important of all golf events, have that status not by any ranking system or numerical code, but by the common agreement of everyone in the game. These are the titles that mean the most.

The Masters is a tournament staged by a club, Augusta National, but it became coveted as history grew up around it. The U.S. Open is America's national championship, staged by the U.S. Golf Association, and the British Open, the oldest, is conducted by the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. The PGA Championship is the only championship of an organization in the group, the PGA of America. The PGA Championship has a more complex history. It grew from a clever business deal.

In 1916, Roland Wanamaker, owner of the huge department store, hosted a luncheon for the top professionals of the day - club pros - and offered to stage a championship for them. He would put up a trophy and a $2,580 purse. This was a stunning offer. The club pro of the day was a rather lowly creature at country clubs - a worker, much like the greenskeeper, the cook and the like.

They leaped at the chance for the recognition, and for the dignity of their own championship. But there was a catch, a quid pro quo. In exchange for his generosity, Wanamaker wanted the blessing of the club pros to carry golf clubs in his big department store. This would help him compete with the Spalding Co., which in 1905 became the first store in the United States to carry its own brand of golf clubs. Wanamaker couldn't get a line of clubs. The manufacturers were selling through the pro shops. Wanamaker would need the permission of the pros to carry those clubs so that he could compete with Spalding. In effect, Wanamaker was offering the club pros a chance to compete with themselves.

The PGA Championship was born, and it remained exclusively the club pros' championship until the rise of television and the marketability of golf thereon compelled them to think inside the box - the TV box.

Then there was a parallel event that guaranteed that the PGA Championship would grow far beyond the club pros. Forced it to.

Back in the 1960s, tour golf was expanding and the tour golfers were growing in fame and fortune. They took the position that although they belonged to the same organization, the PGA, they were completely different from the club pros, and so ought to conduct their own business and control their own destiny. It was acrimonious, but the tour pros broke away in 1968 and formed their organization, which in 1975 became known as the PGA Tour.

Over the years, the PGA of America made certain adjustments to its championship to remain in the TV eye - switching from match play to stroke play, and gradually reducing the number of club pros in the field in order to make room for the recognized best; the original group is down to a vestigial 20.

Back to the Club Pros

Some critics say that the 20 weaken the field. Defenders, on the other hand, ask how can you weaken a field that already has 99 of the top 100 players off the world rankings? The big test, Kestner noted, is the attitude of the tour pros and the fans.

"The tour pros congratulate us on qualifying for the tournament," he said. "They make you feel like a million bucks. And the fans cheer you on. They probably pull for us more than anybody else."

Darrell Kestner eventually got over most of his nervousness, but he knew, as everyone else does, that a club pro has no chance in this traffic, especially not one almost 59, even though he kept the ball in play and had to hit hybrids to the distant greens and had to putt like a wizard.

He took his punishment at the 497-yard, par-4 13th (his fourth hole). He sliced his tee shot into the water, took his penalty drop and still had 235 yards to the green, but he bunkered his approach. He could have come apart at this point. But he blasted out to 30 feet, and holed that to save his bogey.

"That," he said, "is when the nerves left me."

Alas, the blustery winds of Friday were no respecter of status or organization. Kestner had a hell of a time of it. He suffered two double-bogeys, five bogeys, and enjoyed but one birdie. That was the disappointment - not making the cut. None of the 20 survived. But it wasn't a grievous disappointment.

"It's very hard to make the cut," Kestner said. "And making the cut is what we're trying to do. You enjoy the competition, you enjoy the game.

"It's a privilege to play in our championship. It's an honor. It's a nice wonderful adventure. I gave it my best."

Marino Parascenzo can assure you that hanging around with great and famous pro golfers does nothing to help your game. They just won't give you the secret. But it makes for a dandy career. As a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (now retired), Parascenzo covered the whole gamut of sports - Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Penn State and others - but golf was his favorite. As the beat writer for the paper, he covered all the stateside majors and numerous other pro events, and as a freelancer handled reporting duties for the British Open and other tournaments overseas - in Britain, Spain, Italy, the Caribbean, South Africa, China and Malayasia. Marino has won more than 20 national golf-writing awards, along with state and regional awards. He has received the Memorial Tournament's Golf Journalism Award and the PGA of America's Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, among them Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and in anthologies and foreign publications. He also wrote the history of Oakmont Country Club. Parascenzo is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America and is on its board of directors. He is the founder and chairman of the GWAA's Journalism Scholarship Program. He is a graduate of Penn State and was an adjunct instructor in journalism at Pitt.