At the Senior PGA, Skinner keeps his focus

Sonny Skinner, a PGA club professional, reads a putt on the ninth green during the first round of the 74th Senior PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club on May 23, 2013, in St. Louis.

Sonny Skinner, a PGA club professional, reads a putt on the ninth green during the first round of the 74th Senior PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club on May 23, 2013, in St. Louis.

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• • •

TOWN AND COUNTRY, Mo. — As a player who had his PGA Tour card for three years in the 1990s but never managed to win enough money to keep his playing privileges for the following season, Sonny Skinner knows how easy it is for a player to be overly demanding of himself.

But time has softened some of those hard edges and Skinner, now 52, is content with his status as an instructor and top-level player among club professionals.

“I definitely know that’s been an issue with me,” Skinner said on Thursday after a 4-under-par 67 in the first round of the 74th Senior PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club. “I think it is for everybody that plays golf and can break par. You push yourself real hard and you tend to get on yourself tremendously hard. You don’t need anybody else to get on you; we get on ourselves enough and to a fault.

“So as I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that I need to be a little easier with myself. As I started teaching golf the last eight years, I started with the attitude that, ‘Why don’t I treat myself the same way I treat these students that aren’t hitting the best shots? I’m very calm and kind and encouraging to them. Why don’t I treat myself that way?’ ”

Skinner, a teaching professional at River Pointe Golf Club in Albany, Ga., was twice the runner-up in the premier national event for club and teaching pros, the PGA Professional National Championship. He hit all 14 fairways in Thursday’s round. But he was most proud of keeping his emotions from extreme swings, even after holing a 15-foot birdie putt at the 18th, his ninth hole of the day, that finally put him under par.

“I was feeling pretty good and then I started trying to pat myself on the back as I was walking over to No. 1,” he explained, “but I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t get ahead of yourself.’ That was my main goal coming in here this week — to try to play each shot with the same amount of intention. . . . That’s the hard part, I think, for any of us that play the game — not letting our mind wander.”

The highlight of Skinner’s opening round might have been the par he made at Bellerive’s great par-3 sixth hole.

Instead of taking a minute to clean his glasses in one of the day’s brief spells of rain, he pulled a 4-iron into the left bunker, where the ball plugged and left him trying to get it out while standing a good 2 feet above the ball. He thinned it over the green with his next shot but then holed a 40-yard pitch for an unexpected par.

“Six is probably the hardest hole on the course,” said Skinner. “I was just trying to get it out of the bunker without shanking it, just trying to make a 4. So that helped out quite a bit.”

Skinner added three more birdies on his incoming nine to finish the day in a share of second place, just one stroke behind leaders Jay Haas and Duffy Waldorf. But that won’t change he way he looks at what he wanted to accomplish at Bellerive. On a 12-hour drive to St. Louis, he had plenty of time for contemplation.

“I’m not going to adjust my goals because I did have a good day today,” he said. “I’m going to stick with my goals; they served me well today. . . . When you’re outside, looking into a big stage like the Tour and the Champions Tour, it’s real easy to get excited and your eyes wandering all over the place at how wonderful it is. You lose sight of the fact that, ‘Hey, I’ve got to play golf.’ ”

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