Maginnes On Tap: For veterans, a decision awaits

Chris DiMarco

Chris DiMarco

If the Tiger Woods Era is over, don’t blame Tiger. Blame Rory, Rickie, Ryo and the other members of the international boy band that is leading the youth movement in golf.

Each of these players, along with the six rookies on the PGA Tour who have hoisted trophies on the PGA Tour this season, have served noticed to the establishment that things are changing – and changing rather quickly. But those changes come with consequences that extend well beyond the competition.

Professional golf is defined by attrition. For every young player who emerges, there is a veteran somewhere who gets pushed aside. The trick as a player is to figure out when your time has come, and just as importantly, realize when your time is over.

Unfortunately, figuring that out is far more difficult than one might imagine.

Golfweek reported last week that Ted Purdy, 2005 Byron Nelson Champion, was interviewing for the head men’s golf coach’s job at the University of San Diego. He certainly wasn’t the only player in the field at Reno-Tahoe last week who has contemplated the decision to move past a playing career.

Mike Small, three-time PGA Club Professional Champion and currently the men’s golf coach at the University of Illinois, spoke with Purdy recently about the ups and downs of coaching Division I golf.

Small said that between recruiting, scheduling, conducting summer youth clinics and trying to keep his own players motivated that his own golf falls pretty far down the priority list.

“Most people are under the impression that I play a lot more golf than I do,” he said.

Small is one of 20 PGA club pros who will tee it up this week at Atlanta Athletic Club in the PGA Championship. He has made the cut there a couple of times in the last decade. But for every former player such as Small who has found another calling and has his feet on solid ground, there are others still wondering.

PGA Tour veteran Omar Uresti, 42, missed the cut in Reno. Standing on the putting green on Saturday, he said candidly, “I don’t know what I could do. I have been talking to my wife about it and I could probably teach somewhere. But I still feel like I can play.”

Therein lies the dilemma: The inner feeling that you still have what it takes to compete, and perhaps even be better than ever, lingers and haunts a golfer. Only time will tell if Uresti will regain his form through the same type of hard work that earned him playing privileges for a decade and a half.

Jay Williamson, 44, a veteran of nearly 400 PGA Tour events, has a different take: “As you get older, the game gets harder every minute. Being away from home with a family and trying to support them adds so much pressure that it can become unbearable.”

Several months ago, Williamson finally concluded that he was going to have to do something else with his life. A boyhood friend offered him a job selling insurance. So Williamson acquired his license, and most days can be found not on a golf course, but behind a desk at Huntleigh McGehee in St. Louis.

“If it was just me I would probably try to keep playing, but I have three kids,” said Williamson, who tied for 25th in Reno. “This isn’t about me anymore; I have to find a way to support my family. But it hurts to think that this may be the last week I ever play on the PGA Tour.”

On the other side of the spectrum is Chris DiMarco, who turns 43 later this month. Chris has battled through shoulder injuries and a balky putter the last few years, and is using his one-time top 50 career money list exemption to play on Tour this season. The move has paid off. Though he still is looking for his first top 10 of the season, consistent play (Reno marked his sixth top 25 of 2011) ensures he’ll have a spot in the playoffs as well as exempt status for 2012.

“It’s tough when you have played on Ryder Cup Teams and Presidents Cup teams and now you are struggling to keep your card,” he said. “But the confidence is coming back and the putts are starting to fall, and that makes all the difference.” DiMarco acknowledges that there were times during the past few years when he considered stepping away from the game.

A father of three, he added, “It is hard to justify being away from home when you are playing bad golf. Playing better doesn’t make missing things at home any easier, but it helps to justify the effort.”

DiMarco could be one of those rare players – a Vijay Singh or Steve Stricker – who is better in his 40s than he was earlier in his career. For that matter, so, too, could Oresti or Williamson, both of whom have sent in Q-School applications. Mike Small, on the other hand, will return to Illinois.

“I was lucky to have a back up-plan,” Small said. “Playing the Tour is a one-year job. If I keep doing a good job, I can be at Illinois until I retire.”

Players can hang in limbo for years, hoping the next Q-School is the last one they will ever play. And certainly there are echoes of the no-cut, guaranteed-paycheck Champions Tour emanating from a distance. But wishing days away for another uncertainty is foolhardy at best. Every player understands that his individual situation is of his own making. From injuries to shifting priorities, it gets harder every year for the aging player to compete against a youth movement which is fearless and seems to have nothing to lose.

The perspective that comes with age allows even those players who are struggling to appreciate what has been in their careers. The bitterness will fade and the anguish will abate, and what they will be left with are the memories of having competed on golf’s grandest stage.

That and the haunting questions of what might have been.

As the Roman philosopher Seneca once wrote, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, than no wind is favorable.”

•••

Former PGA Tour professional John Maginnes is an on-course commentator for XM Radio and is a contributor on Golf Channel. Known for his knowledge of the game as well as his candor and wit, he will be writing a weekly column on Golfweek.com that appears on Mondays. Check out his Web site: Maginnesontap.com.

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