Club pro Rob Labritz brings success at Bethpage to the first tee at PGA

Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Club pro Rob Labritz brings success at Bethpage to the first tee at PGA

PGA

Club pro Rob Labritz brings success at Bethpage to the first tee at PGA

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Rob Labritz will fire the first shot in the battle for the 101st PGA Championship on Thursday morning at Bethpage Black. The odds are slim that he’ll also hit the final shot of the tournament Sunday evening, even if he is on a course where he has had more experience— and more success — than any of his 155 fellow competitors.

At 6:45 a.m. Labritz will lead off a group that includes Beau Hossler and J.J. Spaun, and the club professional from Westchester County, N.Y. can help calm any jitters among his playing partners. After all, they may be Tour pros, but Labritz has five times as many starts in this major as the kids.

Labritz is the director of golf at the exclusive Glen Arbor Golf Club, a 90-minute drive from Bethpage Black, and disproves the cynical adage that he who cannot do teaches. He finished eighth in the PGA Professional Championship, which earned him a berth in the PGA Championship for the sixth time just a few weeks shy of his 48th birthday.

He made his debut at Hazeltine in 2002. The winner back then was Rich Beem, with whom Labritz played a practice round at Bethpage Black. He also made the field twice at Oak Hill (’03 and ’13), at Baltusrol (’16) and at Whistling Straits, where in ’10 he was the sole weekend survivor among the club pros. He ended up T68.

Rob Labritz plays his shot from the sixth tee during a practice round for the PGA Championship golf tournament at Bethpage State Park – Black Course. (Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports)

That’s enough seasoning to ease any Thursday morning nerves. That wasn’t the case 17 years ago at Hazeltine. “I could barely get the ball on the tee because my hand was shaking so badly. I played with Paul Casey and Heath Slocum,” he remembers. “Now I’ve been out here a bunch and I’m getting to know the guys. I feel pretty comfortable out here. Especially on the Black.”

He has reason to feel at home. On three occasions — 2008, 2011 and 2016 —Labritz won the New York State Open at Bethpage Black. “I’ve been 10-under par through 36 holes on this course,” he says with a wide grin. “A little shorter yardage, obviously.”

How much shorter? “About 500 yards!”

Labritz reckons he’s played the famously stern layout more than 70 times (his best score is 65). That’s as close to a home field advantage as anyone in the field can boast. “I wouldn’t say it changes my expectations. It changes my comfort level,” he says. “I’m definitely a lot more comfortable out here.”

So what odds on another 65 in the coming days? He laughs off the notion. “I just signed a waiver that I’m not supposed to bet in the integrity clause, so I’m gonna plead the fifth on that one!”

His expectations are modest, but nevertheless revealing in how fundamentally similar the goals are for the 20 club pros playing and the superstars: “I expect to go out there and control my emotions. And have fun. And get the New York crowds behind me. And try to play my best golf.”

Labritz played a practice round Tuesday with three of his fellow club pros, none of whom has competed before in a major championship. “You could tell on the first tee they were really nervous. Eventually everyone started feeling comfortable and by the 18th we were having a great time,” he says. “For club pros, once they experience it and forget about the crowds it’s just another golf course.”

The father of two turns 48 on the last day of the month, but refuses to countenance the idea that this might be his last major start. “No,” he says with a firm shake of his head. “I want to make as many as I can until I can’t hit it far enough to compete.”

That day doesn’t seem imminent. He carries his driver 295 yards, which he figures is plenty long enough to manage his way around Bethpage Black. The attitude that comes with age is another asset. “I’ve become more of a man out here,” he adds. “Not so much of a kid. I don’t get upset.”

If there’s a course that will test a player’s nerves, this is it. But a cheerful Labritz says he’s ready for the challenge. “I’m excited for it,” he says. “But I’m calm.”

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