Opinion by Greg Hansen: Dream of PGA can be a chip, putt away

2006-01-19T00:00:00Z Opinion by Greg Hansen: Dream of PGA can be a chip, putt awayOpinion by Greg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 19, 2006 12:00 am  • 

To play in the $50,000 Southern Arizona Open, any golfer — pro, amateur, everybody — must first throw $600 into the pot.

That guarantees you a nice polo shirt with a Cingular Wireless logo and two days of golf, three if you make the cut.

It's poker without the chips.

The first man scheduled on the Dell Urich tee at 9:30 this morning is Grant Cesarek, a former baseball pitcher at Sabino High School who, I can attest, once drove the ball 425 yards on Urich's No. 7 hole. (Yes, it was windy. Yes, I've seen him shoot a 64).

Only 28, Cesarek is a firefighter, married with a young daughter, a giant of a man, golf division, at 6 feet 5 inches, maybe 250 pounds. His ability to shoot 5 under par, sometimes better, is what keeps him throwing money into the pot.

He's good. But how good? Even he does not know.

The PGA Tour inspires "These Guys Are Good" marketing campaigns. At the Southern Arizona Open, it's more like "These Guys Can Really Be Good Most Of The Time."

The difference between PGA Tour membership and the Southern Arizona Open is, what, two strokes per round, day after day? Maybe 2 1/2.

That's how close the different layers of golf are at the pro level. One swing. One putt.

As with most in the field of 144 playing today through Saturday at Dell Urich and Randolph North for a first-place prize of $15,000, Cesarek continues to search for a way to chop those 2 1/2 strokes from his game.

For example, Joel Kribel put up his $600 to play. Two years ago, a regular on the PGA Tour, he won $276,000, including a fourth-place finish at the John Deere Classic. Another year, he won $129,000.

A two-time All-American at Stanford, Kribel made the cut at the 1998 Masters and was second at the U.S. Amateur a year earlier. But he broke a finger while on the PGA Tour in 2003, forcing him to miss the final five months of competition. Essentially, he has not recaptured his game. He is in Tucson on the never-ending search to find it.

Then there is 24-year-old Luke Swilor, a former University of Utah standout who drove the 800 miles from Salt Lake City to Tucson, stopping for a practice round in Page.

This is not the same route that Tiger Woods took to the PGA Tour.

Swilor did not enter the PGA Tour's Qualifying School in October because he could not afford the $4,500 entry fee. He spent most of the winter hitting golf balls indoors off rubber mats. His schedule this year includes the Wyoming Open, the Denver Open and, this week, the Southern Arizona Open.

On his Web site, Swilor labels this golf odyssey "Luke Swilor's Road to the Tour." Talk about being optimistic. About the only way for him to get there is to get lucky or get a sponsor who will pay his Q-School dues.

Fifteen of Tucson's leading golfers are in the field this week. Pick your script. These 15 Tucsonans have been there.

Jeff Kern was one of America's leading amateurs in the late 1970s, apparently bound for the pro tour. Then, in a construction accident, two of his fingers were severed. He has rebuilt his game into that 2 1/2-stroke category.

Sahuaro grad Rich Barcelo spent 2004 on the PGA Tour and now is trying to get back. Catalina Foothills product John Schones III was a college star at Wright State. Sabino's David Yarnes has become a top money winner on the Grey Goose Tour. Rick Price, longtime club pro at Tucson National, is bidding to take his game to a higher level.

All have been close.

Winning the Southern Arizona Open does not mean you can win anywhere. Last year's champ, former Kansas State golfer Aaron Watkins, gained automatic entry into the $3 million Chrysler Classic of Tucson. He missed the cut and wound up on the Grey Goose Tour, earning $28,567.

He's back in town this week, searching for another launching point.

The field's most compelling story probably belongs to Matt Bettencourt, 30, who played collegiately at Modesto Junior College.

Six months ago, Bettencourt battled ex-UA golfer Jason Gore down the stretch in the Nationwide Tour's Scholastic America Classic. Gore won; Bettencourt was third, earning $27,300.

A month later, Gore was not only on the PGA Tour, he won the 84 Lumber Classic and earned more than $1 million for the year. Now he's a flat-out media star.

By comparison, Bettencourt lost his tour privileges. He's in the Southern Arizona Open only because he paid the $600 entry fee.

Given the ability of the other 143 golfers in the field, getting back that $600, or more, is easier said than done.

If you go

● What: Southern Arizona Open, a pro golf tournament

● Where: Randolph Golf Course, 600 N. Alvernon Way

● Where: Stroke play today and Friday for 144 golfers from 9:30 a.m. to midafternoon. Final round Saturday at Randolph North.

● Purse: $50,000 prize money. Winner gets $15,000.

● Cost: None.

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