JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Bill Cauley was a diver in the Navy who didn’t know much about golf except for the little he played on base at Mayport Naval Station. And he knew enough to realize that his little boy had a big appetite for the game.
Bud Cauley got his first set of golf clubs when he was about 5, and it doesn’t seem as though he ever put them down. Father and son used to spend hours late in the day on the putting green of a public course, chipping and putting until the pro shop closed and they could sneak over to the first tee and play until dark.
“We knew how to make a dollar stretch,” Bill Cauley said Tuesday.
It has paid off in a big way.
Cauley is on the verge of joining a distinguished group on the PGA Tour. The 21-year-old shot a 66 in the final round of the Frys.com Open to finish alone in third and make $340,000. He has earned $671,150 in seven tournaments, the equivalent of being No. 114 on the money list.
If he can stay among the top 125, then Cauley would become only the sixth player to turn pro and get his PGA Tour card without having to go to Q-School. With two tournaments left — Cauley is playing at Sea Island this week in the McGladrey Classic — that appears to be a safe bet.
The others to do that: Ryan Moore, Tiger Woods, Justin Leonard, Phil Mickelson and Gary Hallberg.
Cauley wouldn’t allow himself to think that far ahead. It was only about four months ago that he left Alabama after his junior season to turn pro, driving from the NCAA Championship in Stillwater, Okla., to a U.S. Open qualifier in Mississippi. He made his pro debut at Congressional, tying for 63rd in the U.S. Open. Since then, he has played 22 rounds on the PGA Tour and shot in the 60s all but five times.
Cauley is one of several college kids who have stood out this year.
Patrick Cantlay, now a sophomore at UCLA, is getting most of the attention. One week after he was low amateur at the U.S. Open, Cantlay shot 60 in the second round of the Travelers Championship, and then tied for ninth at the Canadian Open. Harris English and Russell Henley, both of whom finished their college careers at Georgia last spring, won Nationwide Tour events.
Ultimately, the most impressive mark might belong to Cauley because of the elite company he is about to keep.
It’s one thing to have a good round, or a good week. Cauley said he turned pro because he knew he could compete with anyone, and then he has spent three months proving it.
He tied for 24th in the Travelers Championship (same as Cantlay), and tied for fourth in the Viking Classic, with a small purse because it is opposite the British Open. That got him into the Canadian Open, where he tied for 13th. The only cut he missed was in the Reno-Tahoe Open.
Perhaps even more impressive is that of the list of guys skipping school, only Woods and Mickelson earned cards with fewer chances than Cauley. Mickelson won as an amateur in 1991, giving him a two-year exemption when he turned pro a year later. Woods won in his fifth start.
Moore played in 10 tournaments before he earned enough money to get his card. Leonard played 13 times and Hallberg got his card in his 14th start the summer of 1980. It could be that Cauley needs only seven chances.
“Getting starts out there and playing is really the most difficult thing,” Cauley said.
Getting noticed hasn’t always been easy this year, if not from tournament directors than from the guys he’s trying to beat. Cauley played the third round at CordeValle with Ernie Els. Cauley is only about 5 feet, 7 inches and with a slight build. To see him walk down the fairway with the 6-4 Big Easy, they looked like Andy and Opie headed to Mayberry’s best fishing hole.
Small wonder, then, that Els turned to Cauley that Saturday and innocently asked, “When are you going to turn pro?”
“I think by the back nine, he knew I was a professional,” Cauley said.
“That was my fault,” Els said with a sheepish grin. “Great guy, great kid. Met his father on the range. I wouldn’t mess with him, ever. I hear he was in the military, in the Navy. Nice man. And he’s got a great son, a great future. He will be a great player.”
Cauley is not there yet, although it’s a first step worth noting because it is based on results over three months.
A tweet from Cauley as he left CordeValle shows how much he appreciates how far he has come.
“Thanks for all the support! Looking forward to next week. Very appreciative for the sacrifices my family has made to put me in this position.”
His father retired in 2010 after 20 years in the Navy. His mother is a reading coach at an elementary school who educated Bud at home so he could practice during the day. It’s not cheap to groom a golfer. On the side, Bill Cauley started a diving business in which he would clean the bottom of luxury boats.
“I used to bring Bud along and let the gnats feed on him while I was diving and cleaning the boats,” his father said. “He saw what it takes to provide. And I think he saw what a strong work ethic can do.”
Another tweet showed how good life is treating him these days. During a practice round Tuesday on the Seaside Course at Sea Island, he made a hole-in-one.