PGA Championship an opportunity for club pros to become rock stars

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Matt Dobyns had just finished playing the front nine last Friday at Valhalla, in preparation for this week’s PGA Championship, and he walked to the 10th tee to take in the course’s back nine for the first time.

As he got there, Dobyns, who was playing solo, encountered Will Zalatoris on the 10th tee.

“I just turned,’’ Dobyns said to Zalatoris. “Do you mind if I join you?’’

Michael Block, the club pro who took the golf world by storm at last year’s PGA Championship, is back this year at Valhalla thanks to his performance in 2023. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

“Yeah, we just hopped up here, so you can tell us to buzz off,’’ Zalatoris said with a smile.

And off they went — Dobyns a 46-year-old club pro from the Meadow Brook Club in Jericho on Long Island playing in his sixth PGA Championship, and Zalatoris, a 27-year-old rising star on the PGA Tour who lost the PGA Championship in a playoff to Justin Thomas two years ago.

They both teed off, hit their respective drives onto the left side of the fairway, and Zalatoris’ caddie walked purposely to the longer of the two shots and realized that was Dobyns’ ball some 15 yards longer than his man’s.

Dobyns, of course, had a little fun with Zalatoris about it.

“It never gets old,’’ Dobyns said.

Having 20 club pros in the field at every PGA Championship (21 this year because Michael Block, last year’s sensation, automatically got in based on his finish last year) is one of the charms that sets this major apart from the other three. It’s a tradition that, while criticized in some circles, should never be changed.

Michael Block holds his 2023 Low PGA Club Professional award alongside tournament winner Brooks Koepka. Getty Images

The PGA Championship field is 156 players, which allows for 136 of the supposed best players in the world to qualify. That’s plenty enough of a chance.

Sure, no club pro has ever won the PGA Championship, and club pros merely making the cut happen about as frequently as Tiger Woods gives public tours of his yacht named “Privacy.’’

Still, it’s moments like Block produced at last year’s PGA — becoming a rock star at Oak Hill with his 15th-place finish, a result that earned him an automatic exemption into this week’s field — that set the PGA apart from the other majors.

Each of the majors has its unique features, with the Masters played on the same iconic venue every year and inviting all past champions to play if they’re able.

The U.S. Open has the most open qualifying process of them all. And the British Open is a combination of the U.S. Open and Masters, with the open qualifying and inviting its past champions to play until they’re 65.

The critics of the PGA’s process want the club pros either eliminated completely or reduced to far fewer than 20.

I say keep it as it is, because of stories like Block and whatever story a guy like Dobyns might have to write with his golf clubs.

Dobyns, who plays right-handed but putts lefty, said his favorite part of these weeks is “giving away stuff to little kids and hitting good shots in front of big crowds.’’

“If I could ever make a cut in one of these things, it would be making the cut, so that’s still on the list [of things to do],’’ he said. “I’m playing fine, but I’m not getting any younger, I’m not getting any longer and the courses are getting longer.

Will Zalatoris owalks off the fourth tee during a practice round prior to the 2024 PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club. Getty Images

“I don’t know how many more of these I’m going to be able to play in. For me at my age, I don’t know when the last one’s going to happen, so I’ve got to try to take advantage of the time and enjoy it while I’m here.’’

Dobyns’ wife, Laurie, and their two children, 12-year-old Kaitlyn and 9-year-old Michael, arrived Tuesday night for the week.

“This will be the first one they’ll be able to remember, which is why we brought them,’’ Dobyns said. “They’ve come to see me do this before, but they were too little to remember. I’ve been at Meadowbrook for six years, and I haven’t qualified since they moved the [club pro] qualifier to April.

Nine-year-old Michael Dobyns sits next to the golf bag as his father, PGA Club pro Matt Dobyns, 9, takes some putts on the 9th green at the 2024 PGA Championship Wednesday. Matt Stone/The Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

“I did wonder if I’d get back. For a lot of years, I was here every year. Guys started to recognize me. Kevin Kisner would see me and was like, ‘You’re always at this tournament.’

“But as the kids got older, it became more difficult to sneak away in the winter to put time into my own game. At this point for me it’s like a bonus. It’s almost like a hobby for me now. I don’t have a ton left as a club pro to accomplish apart from performing well in one of these things.’’

Dobyns said having played in five of these before, he’s become more comfortable and familiar with the surroundings.

“This is No. 6 for me, so you know the pace of the week, you understand the cadence of everything that happens and what the buzz is going to be like and how it’s going to increase as the week goes on,’’ he said. “There are less surprises … except for something like this when you suddenly get paired with Will Zalatoris.’’

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