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Bill Haisten: For Tracy Phillips at the Senior PGA, a great week and a well-timed $50,000

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A cool storyline during the 2021 Senior PGA Championship was Bob Sowards’ performance at Southern Hills. As one of 20 club professionals in the field, his goal was to make the cut and pocket some money that could be applied to his daughter’s college fund.

Sowards did more than just make the cut. The Ohio native tried to win the tournament. He finished in a tie for fifth and left Tulsa with $106,000 that now is spent on his daughter’s experience at Arizona State.

“What Bob did gave other club pros the drive to try to do the same,” Tracy Phillips says. “If he could do it, maybe we could do it, too. Bob set the bar pretty high.”

During last week’s Senior PGA Championship at Benton Harbor, Michigan, another club professional had a special week. This time, it was Phillips — a renowned swing coach and the director of instruction at Broken Arrow’s Cedar Ridge Country Club.

There were three sub-par rounds, four full rounds without a three-putt and a tie for 17th place. With a 72-hole score of 5-under par, Phillips was six shots better than the next-highest club pro on the leaderboard (Paul Claxton of Vidalia, Georgia).

Phillips collected $50,000 and, like Sowards, has committed the money to higher education. Tracy’s daughter Sam Phillips recently graduated from Bishop Kelley and in August becomes an OU freshman.

Sam and Tracy’s wife Suzie were in Michigan to watch the 59-year-old Phillips achieve a tremendously satisfying outcome.

“I could look back and say, ‘Well, I misread some short putts and missed some short putts,’ but at the same time, I putted pretty well on greens that were very fast and undulating,” Tracy Phillips said. “I didn’t make a compound mistake — the type of mistake that leads to a double bogey. I had a Saturday up-and-down that Ernie Els said was one of the best he’s ever seen. That easily could have been a double or a triple.

“It all balances out. Could I have shot better? Possibly. But overall, I played pretty well. I’ll build on that week and go to the Senior Open with some confidence and try to play a little better.”

During a U.S. Senior Open qualifier on May 4, in uncomfortably cool and blustery conditions on a course near Topeka, Kansas, Phillips shot a 5-under 67 to win by four shots and punch his ticket to the June 23-26 U.S. Senior Open in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Phillips’ return to high-level golf is fairly remarkable. He is the son of Buddy Phillips, who during 40 years as the Cedar Ridge head pro became universally known in the Oklahoma golf community.

After Tracy Phillips was the nation’s No. 1-ranked junior golfer in 1979 and 1980, and the Junior PGA Championship winner in 1980, he signed with Oklahoma State. He expected to have a great career for Mike Holder and a great career on the PGA Tour.

During Phillips’ OSU freshman season, however, there was a catastrophic setback: a herniated disk.

Back pain impacted every facet of his game and soured him on competitive golf. Even for a completely healthy player, staying sharp requires an intense, everyday commitment. When your back constantly hurts and the pain necessitates a total rebuild of your swing mechanics, and when you’re no longer getting the desired results with your shots and scores, golf isn’t fun.

Still in his early 20s, Phillips essentially retired from competitive playing. He got serious about bass fishing and took a job at Hank Haney’s golf school in McKinney, Texas. Phillips was a talented teacher of the game, but didn’t play serious golf for 20 years.

“I just reached a point where I didn’t like golf. I just said, ‘I’m done,’” Phillips recalls. “I still liked it enough to teach other people how to play, but not enough to play every day anymore.”

So, how and when did his comeback begin?

“It was a progression,” Phillips explained. “Vince Bizik (a well-known Oklahoma and Arkansas golf figure) called and said, ‘You’ve been out of it for too long. You need to come play with me on some Mondays. We’ll hit it and giggle and have some fun.’ I started doing that and had some success and some fun. I was 43 or 44.

“That led me into playing in some (South Central) section events. I won some events. I enjoyed competing. In the last two years, I started looking more at my golf swing. In the last couple of years, I developed more confidence and started to feel like I could play with anyone, for the most part.”

On Saturday, May 21, Phillips played as a marker during the third round of the PGA Championship. Because an odd number of players made the cut, Phillips was recruited to play so that Brian Harman wouldn’t have to walk alone for 18 holes and wouldn’t benefit from reading the shots and putts of a partner. Phillips had a better day than his score would indicate. His round of 5-over 75 was tarnished by “two bad back-side double bogeys,” he said.

On Sunday, May 22, he traveled to Michigan. In spite of a mid-afternoon arrival, Phillips was able to play a full practice round that day. He says subsequent Senior PGA practice sessions went well and that he felt ready to play. He birdied three of his first six holes of the tournament.

He parred each of his final five holes, which meant he would sustain his surprisingly solid position on the leaderboard. He returned to the clubhouse with an impressive opening score — a 2-under 69.

“Yeah, it probably set the tone, but it’s just one day,” Phillips said. “I felt good about my golf swing and my short game. We played in some rough conditions. I think what helped me most during the week was making some key putts for pars. Key up-and-downs in the right places, to really sustain momentum moving forward.

“There are three or maybe four times in a round of golf where you either keep momentum going or you lose momentum. I was always on the positive side of keeping momentum going.”

During their televised coverage, Golf Channel and NBC would make the occasional reference to Phillips having a special tournament as one of 20 club professionals in the field, but he didn’t get much live-action television time.

Fortunately, his Saturday up-and-down on No. 7 was televised. As his approach had sailed to the right of the green, the ball was positioned near a parking lot. His lie was terrible. Phillips was so far below the green that he had no view of the flag.

“Just to get this on the green, from down there, would be incredible,” NBC analyst Gary Koch said.

Phillips executed a miraculous shot to within about six feet of the pin, and he converted on the par putt.

“It’s the up-and-down of the year,” Koch said. “Not of the championship. Of the year.”

Golf Channel presented a nice Sunday package of Phillips images from his days as a 16-year-old, when he was a superstar junior.

The Senior PGA winner was Steven Alker, who prevailed by three strokes over Stephen Ames and by six over Bernhard Langer. During the weekend, the 5-foot-4 Phillips played with 6-foot-3 Ernie Els.

“Ernie Els didn’t know my story until a writer from PGA.com told him a little bit about it after the third round,” Phillips said. “Ernie was a pleasant gentleman to play with. He really made me feel comfortable.”

Phillips now is pain-free and turns 60 in December. While most players in the Senior PGA field had lucrative sponsorship logos on their hats and apparel, Phillips wore a hoodie and a hat branded with the Executive Homes logo. Executive Homes is a Broken Arrow-based home builder. Several of its executives and employees go to Phillips for golf instruction.

Phillips’ phone overflowed with messages of encouragement during the tournament and with congratulations after it ended.

“I had a tremendous amount of support and well-wishes from members at Cedar Ridge,” he said, “along with people I teach and people I’ve worked with. It was a true blessing.”

As for the $50,000, Phillips says it’s “by far” the most money he’s won in any golf tournament.

“The timing was great,” he added in reference to Sam Phillips’ move from the hallways of Kelley to the campus of OU.

When the 2023 Senior PGA Championship is played, ambitious club pros can be inspired by what Bob Sowards did in Tulsa in 2021 — and what Tracy Phillips did in Michigan last week.

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Sports Columnist

I joined the Tulsa World in 1990. Prior to becoming a sports columnist in 2016, I was the only sports writer in Tulsa World history to have covered OU, OSU, the University of Tulsa and Oral Roberts sports on an everyday basis. Phone: 918-581-8397

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