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Tracy Phillips, 61-year-old club pro, says PGA reminds him of hitting 3-wood into greens as a kid

Tracy Phillips, 61-year-old club pro, says PGA reminds him of hitting 3-wood into greens as a kid

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Tracy Phillips hit what he thought was a pretty good drive on the par-4 17th hole at Valhalla. It traveled 240 yards and didn't make it to the start of the fairway.

Such is life when you are 61 and playing in the PGA Championship.

This unexpected trip to the majors brings back memories of 50 years ago for the club pro from Oklahoma, who was the oldest player on a golf course that measured more than 7,500 yards for Thursday's first round.

“It reminds me of when I was 9, 10, 11 years old, playing the white tees at the club," Phillips said. “I'm having to hit driver, 3-wood, 3-wood to par 5s, and driver, 3-wood to par 4s, and I probably didn't get to all of them.”

All those long shots into the greens resulted in a round of 4-over 75 - not quite what he was dreaming of, but hardly enough to put a damper on a journey to one of golf's biggest stages that came four decades later than most people expected.

He is one of 21 club pros who qualified for the PGA. This trip comes 44 years after Phillips was ranked as the country’s top junior. He rode that success to a scholarship at Oklahoma State, but a back injury wrecked his game and he quit competitive golf for about 20 years.

“I wish I had probably 10 years of those back,” he said. “But I'm having a blast now. Being here, playing with this kind of crowd and atmosphere, is a dream come true. I knew coming in it would be a pretty hard task to make the cut based on the distance I'm having into the greens.”

He'll need a round in the 60s on Friday to make the cut. It's not likely, but he figures it's also not impossible if he plays great.

Either way, Phillips will travel next week to Harbor Shores Golf Club in Michigan for the Senior PGA Championship. It's an event where the course is less taxing and where he's made the cut three times since his resurgence began about 10 years ago after a buddy lured him into some friendly Monday games around Tulsa that reminded him of just how good he can be.

When that's over, he'll be back to giving lessons at Cedar Ridge Country Club near Tulsa, the same place where his dad, Buddy, manned the shop and the driving range for 40 years. Buddy died in 2020.

Speaking on a “Walk and Talk” on ESPN during his round - who ever saw that coming? - Phillips said he’s sure his dad is looking down on him at Valhalla and smiling.

This week, the teacher’s biggest lesson has nothing to do with grip, alignment or swing.

“Just persevere,” Phillips said. “It’s a game you can play for many years. Just hang in there. It’s a tough game, but just dig it out and have some fun with it.”