Diary of a Rookie's Debut
Note: Grand Rapids golf professional Buddy Whitten, a National Qualifying Tournament survivor at age 50 and one of Michigan's most decorated club professionals during his 19 years at Blythefield Country Club, made his debut in early February on the Senior PGA Tour at Royal Caribbean Classic in Key Biscayne, Florida. Here's a diary as compiled by Greg Johnson.
The veterans on tour fill all the slots in the pro-am, so rookie Whitten is left with a day of his choosing. He chooses to relax for part of the day, hit balls for one hour and putt for one hour. The first round is Friday, and he has an 8 a.m. tee time with fellow tour rookies David Oakley, a hotel liquidator out of Orlando, Florida and Bob Duval of Neptune Beach, Florida, a former club pro and the father of PGA Tour rising star David Duval.
Whitten had an especially good session on the practice tee with his driver Tuesday. He picked out two poles some 275 yards away, and consistently hits about 30 balls between them. His Thursday session doesn't go as well, and he is thinking he might switch drivers again.
The Sheraton is a plush hotel, and is home for many tour players this week. Whitten relaxes in his room until heading to dinner with Beahan and a Grand Rapids sports reporter at the popular Key Biscayne restaurant "The Rusty Pelican."
"I've never eaten at a place that included the word rust in its name," he reports.
He has shrimp, and strawberries for desert. Beahan picks up the check.
"I could get used to this," he says and smiles.
A couple of Blythefield members, who spend part of winter in south Florida, are on hand to watch his first official round on tour, as are fellow Michigan club pros Lynn Janson of Egypt Valley and Dave Kendall, formerly of Cadillac.
When Whitten makes consecutive birdies at Nos. 7, 8 and 9 with stunning iron shots, suddenly his name is on the leaderboard.
He doesn't hold it under par on the back nine though. The wind, which is blowing from the north for the first time all week, has changed the way the course is played. Whitten has not played it in this wind, and admits he was unsure of club selection often during the round.
Also, he has a miserable day on the par 5 holes.
At the par 5 No. 14, where he will make birdie in the final two rounds, he laments the decision to try and reach the green in two shots. He is left of a mound, hitting to a severe slope and has little chance of keeping the ball on the green with his third shot. He doesn't, ends up with a sand shot, and on a day when he is struggling with his sand play. That means bogey.
"I tossed away at least two shots on the par 5s, if not four shots," he says. "That makes it awfully difficult to get a low score."
Saved by his birdie string, Whitten shoots a 2-over-par 73, and looks up to see Chi Chi Rodriguez at the top of the leaderboard after a 67. The 61-year-old Rodriguez steals the show as usual, and afterward talks of taking shots of lamb hormones, a secret substance in his golf ball and feeling a new competitive spirit. Whitten clips Lee Trevino by eight shots. The 81 is the worst round ever for Trevino on the Senior Tour.
"My name went up on the leaderboard and I told myself to keep getting under par, but it didn't work out that way," Whitten says of his 73. "I threw away some shots out there, made some bad course management decisions and got some bad breaks. It's really the way I've been playing lately."
Buddy Whitten grew up in Pensacola, Fla., and Hubert Green grew up in Birmingham, Ala. They were outstanding junior players, and their paths first crossed at the Junior Masters when both were 13.
Whitten went on to Vietnam and Southern Mississippi, missed making the PGA Tour three times, and ended up in Grand Rapids for 19 years as a club professional.
Green went to Florida State University, worked briefly in Pennsylvania as a club pro and then made the PGA Tour. He played it for 26 years, winning 19 times, including 16 times in the 1970s. His biggest titles were the 1977 U.S. Open and the 1985 PGA at Cherry Hills.
The fellow Senior Tour rookies are paired together, and Green calls Whitten the club pro on the first tee, joking about a man who had to work a real job.
"Where have you been for the last 25 years?" he asks with a smile.
Whitten's only U.S. Open happens to be the 1977 event. They played a practice round that week at Southern Hills, and Whitten remembers Green talking of marriage and financial troubles. In the final round of that Open, Green receives a death threat. But he plays on, holding off Lou Graham.
"It always seemed like he was beating me at everything," Whitten remembers. "I followed his career, and I would see him once in a while. It was perfect really that the first time I play with name players out there, I play with Hubert and Cal (Peete). I've played with them, know them and they were actually more talkative and relaxed then I remember them being in the past in competition."
Green puts on a short game show, holing out two sand shots and making another long rolling chip-in from the fringe. In all he uses just 18 putts in shooting a 66. The 18 putts are one off the Senior Tour record, and equal to the record on the PGA Tour.
Whitten's 70 is hardly noticed, though his iron shots are easily the best of the group. After No. 16, he is 2-under-par for the tournament. But he finished with consecutive bogey holes at No. 17 and 18. At 17, he misses a two-foot par-saving putt after his 6-iron approach fell short in a bunker, and at 18 he blocks a cut with his driver into the swamp area between the course and the Atlantic Ocean.
Whitten settles at 143, seven shots off the lead of Gibby Gilbert, who shot 66 for 136.
"I should have finished it," he says. "I probably hit my driver as bad as I've hit it in a long time, and almost got away with it."
I want to get to a point where I get in the leaders groups, feel the heat," Whitten says after a even-par 71 leaves him at 214 for the tournament, tied for 26th and with $7,395 in earnings.
"I want to play better so I can experience that. I don't know how I'll react, but I want to find out."
Gibby Gilbert runs away with it. The 56-year-old Tennessee native who lived for 16 years in the Miami area, shoots a second consecutive 66 and wins for the sixth time on the Senior Tour.
Whitten finishes 12 shots back, and enjoys a final round with Harold Henning and Bob Panasik. He hit his driver better, still struggled some with sand shots and his "Hog" putter seems balky.
He plans to get a heavier version of the putter at the next tour stop in Naples, Fla., and his caddy Graphite jokes that he thought about giving the current "Hog" away to a kid in the gallery.
Whitten doesn't laugh at the joke, but he does smile when he is told that a Palm Beach couple followed him all three rounds just because he said something nice to them at No. 1 on Friday. They said they were starting the Buddy Whitten Fan Club.
He likes that idea, but quickly his mind returns to his putter.
"It's going to be fine," he says. "I'll try it with more weight in the head. I'm not getting through the ball the way I want to, and I think that's why I'm missing the short putts."
Whitten also laments five bogeys in the 54 holes on the dozen par 5 hole chances.
"That was just awful," he says. "I can't remember when I've ever played the par 5s that way in a tournament."
Again he finished the round with a bogey at No. 17 via a short missed putt, and again he made bogey on No. 18 because he hit his tee shot into the water hazard right.
"I threw away some shots again," he says. "I have to start coming up with rounds in the 60s, and do it more consistently. Once I experience that, and learn to deal with my adrenaline rush out there in a positive way, then I'll know exactly where I'm at."
With that, he hops in his van and heads across Florida to Naples for his second Senior Tour event.
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