Club pros deserve their place at PGA Championship

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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — There’s a school of thought among some PGA Tour players every year the PGA Championship comes around that the 20 club professionals who qualify for the tournament water down the field and take away spots from them.

That school of thought is nonsense.

The 20 club pros who qualify into the field every year via the PGA Professional Championship are part of the charm of the PGA Championship, the same way the Masters tradition of inviting past champions into the field sets that week at Augusta apart from other tournaments.

There are 156 players in the field for this week’s PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course. Among the 20 club pros, a quarter of them are from the New York Met Section — a remarkable testament to how good the players are in our part of the country.

Rob Labritz, from GlenArbor Golf Club in Pound Ridge, and Danny Balin, from Fresh Meadow on Long Island, are each playing in their eighth PGA Championship. Alex Beach, from Westchester Country Club, is playing in his fourth, 53-year-old Frank Bensel Jr., from Century in Westchester, is playing in his third, and Pete Ballo, from Silvermine Golf Club in Norwalk, Conn., is playing in his first.

Do any of the five — or any of the other 15 club pros for that matter — have a realistic chance to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy by day’s end Sunday?

Highly unlikely, based on history. In the past 13 PGA Championships, just 10 players have made the cut, with the best finish a tie for 31st. Since 1997, 26 club pros have made the cut in 24 tournaments.

Labritz is the most accomplished of the group, having made the cut twice and finishing as the low club pro twice — a tie for 60th in 2019 at Bethpage Black and a tie for 68th in 2010 at Whistling Straits.

Balin is 0-for-7, trying to break through for the first time this week. Neither Beach nor Bensel has made it to the weekend.

But, so what?

Getting into this field is a major accomplishment for these guys, and every year cool stories emerge from some of these club pros at the PGA. There are 136 other spots for the tour pros to chase. That’s plenty enough.

“I understand my place,’’ Labritz said Monday. “I understand that I’m not the draw. I know that people are buying PGA Championship tickets to see Brooks Koepka, Tommy Fleetwood and all these guys. I know they’re not coming out to see Rob Labritz.

“But this is our championship. I’ve got my spot here. And I can go out on any given day against any of these guys on any golf course, and at the end of 18 holes when we walk off the golf course, [the PGA Tour pro] will say, ‘Oh my gosh, this guy can actually play.’ ’’

Balin echoed Labritz’s sentiment when he said the PGA Championship “is our championship’’ as PGA of America members.

“These guys [PGA Tour pros] play the game, and we teach and grow the game,’’ Balin said. “To be able to have our [club] members see us compete with them is a huge accomplishment. It also shows the guys that are teaching can also play. They [PGA Tour players] get all year to qualify for this with world ranking points. We get one week. To hold 20 spots for us, in my opinion, is the right thing to do.’’

Benzel made the point that “there are guys [club pros] out here who are great players and may someday play on the PGA Tour.’’

One of those could be Ballo, who’s 29 and such a bomber of the golf ball that Labritz raved, “He’s got so much talent in his body, it’s ridiculous. He hits the ball a ton. When I say a ton, he’s as long as any of the longest hitters out here on Tour.’’

Labritz, who’s had a bit of experience with these things, predicted that this week “is the first of many’’ PGA Championships Ballo will play.

“I’m trying to build a layer cake,’’ Ballo said Monday. “However many layers I can get, the better the cake is going to be. I already have the one layer by just being here. From there, how many layers can I have?’’

Beach, who won the PGA Professional Championship in 2019 and earned six PGA Tour starts as a result, has dreams of making it on the PGA Tour and said making the cut this week would be “a huge confidence booster.’’

“If it were to happen,’’ Beach said, “it would be pretty special.’’

A lot more special than one of the middle-of-the-road PGA Tour pros slipping into the weekend by barely making the cut.

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