Michigan Golfer ON-LINE

'Rookie' Whitten on Senior Tour

Buddy Whitten eyed the 1997 Senior PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament as a tremendous opportunity, and thus opted for his first golf lesson in 20 years as part of several months of preparation.

Last spring, the 50-year-old Michigan Golf Hall of Famer and his 17-year-old son Chris trekked north from Grand Rapids to Treetops Sylvan Resort near Gaylord to see Henry Young, a noted teacher who has worked with several touring professional golfers.

"Initially it was supposed to be an hour for Chris and an hour for me, but it turned into an hour and 50 minutes for Chris and 10 minutes for me," said the head golf professional at Blythefield Country Club in suburban Grand Rapids for the last 19 years.

"But the things he went through with Chris helped me too, and he got me on the right track with some things.

"Basically, he showed me I was working with an open stance and closed upper body, and he got me to close my stance and open my upper body which was basically square then. Something worked. I shot a 66 right after that, and I had a 64 at the club one day. It gave me great confidence knowing I could get the low numbers again."

"I'm very pleased that what Buddy learned when he was up here proved valuable," said Young. "With players of Buddy's calibre, it's often a minor adjustment that is a key. Basically, his swing plane had gravitated too far to the right and he was compensating for it," said Young, the '94 Michigan PGA Teacher Player of the Year.

Whitten, currently in the midst of his rookie season on the Senior circuit complete with an unprecedented full sponsorship by Grand Rapids-based Amway Corp. and Blythefield, produced low numbers in both stages of qualifying.

A second-round 67 powered a tie for 5-8 in the final stage. The low eight earned exempt status for the entire 1997 schedule.

Whitten was especially pleased with his putting in qualifying competition, or perhaps the return of his putting skills after what he described as a 10-year absence.

"I missed just one putt inside five feet all week," he said after the final Q-School event on the Valley course at TPC at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla. "I found something to help me score again, and that was the key."

Whitten, who last August during the Michigan PGA Championship called his Senior Tour plans a long shot, had not won the Michigan PGA since 1983, and had not won the Michigan Open since back-to-back titles in 1982 and '83. He was always among the leaders, as being a five-time Michigan PGA Player of the Year would suggest, but he felt winning was the true measure of his play.

He also knew his history with PGA Tour qualifying 23 years before. It was then that a 28-year-old Whitten missed short in an effort to earn a spot on the PGA Tour for the third time. It was just two strokes, and only three the year before that.

But the Vietnam veteran who had played golf seriously since age 13 realized he was a long way from Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller, who dominated the big Tour at that time.

"I still believe I could have made it on the regular Tour, but realistically, at that time making it for me would have been in the group 45th through 60th on the money list, and back then that wasn't the kind of money it is today," he said. "I realized that the kind of money I could hope to make was not enough to pay my bills, and that I didn't like to travel, that I didn't like sleeping in cheap hotels, that I had a wife I wanted to spend time with. It really wasn't that hard of a decision to seek another position in the golf industry, and I've honestly never looked back."

Whitten will make his Senior PGA Tour debut in the first week of February at the Royal Caribbean Classic in Key Biscayne, Fla.

He plans to play a full schedule, especially since Amway Corp. announced sponsorship in conjunction with Blythefield in mid-December. Whitten has the new title of director of golf at Blythefield CC, and part of his paid duties are to take a full shot at the Senior Tour.

Amway, promoting Whitten as "The Rookie," assembled a public relations and marketing team to work with him. He is promoting Amway products, sporting Amway and Blythefield logos on his clothing and equipment bags, and entertaining, meeting and playing golf with Amway distributors in tournament cities. Incentive clauses based on performance are also part of the package.

Financial terms were not disclosed, but Senior Tour golfers estimate expenses between $2,500 and $3,500 per week. Whitten, fully aware that golfers with major championships are usually the ones to receive such blanket financial support, has repeatedly called the situation unbelievable.

"I was prepared to try it on my own with my main focus on keeping my position at Blythefield," he said. "This, well, this is beyond anything I could have imagined_ I don't know of any other golfer in my position, a club pro, a qualifier, who ever expected to have this opportunity."

As for pressure to perform in the days ahead, Whitten feels that has been lifted as far as it's possible to lift it off a golfer.

"I look at it that now I have a whole year to prove or disprove that I can do it," he said. "It's a great opportunity, incredible, one I really never expected."

Whitten's preliminary schedule called for a minimum of 19 events, but he could play as many as 31. The calendar includes five events he will play if he qualifies through qualifying events or via the money list, and he will make choices concerning seven other tournaments based on his money list standing at the time. He does not plan to make his regular stop at club pro events in Michigan, opting instead for the bigger purses and promotion for Amway in Senior Tour cities.

His fellow club professionals are happy for him, and some predicted it might happen. Great Oaks' Randy Erskine said two years ago that Buddy Whitten was the one Michigan club pro he fully expected would have a chance to make the Senior Tour. And last August, Egypt Valley's Lynn Janson talked him up as well, insisting there was no question Whitten should give it a go.

"From tee to green I've seen him hit the golf ball better than a lot of players on that tour," Jansen said. "_ He has the game, and it's great Blythefield feels that way about it."

Whitten hired a caddy before the qualifying stages. Ron "Graphite" Matthews of Los Angeles worked two years on the LPGA Tour, most recently for Rosie Jones, and he offered Whitten a key pep talk during qualifying that cemented his relationship with his player.

Whitten laughed about being called "The Rookie" by Amway, and he promised to fire at the flag during his pressure-free shot on tour that full sponsorship affords him.

"I'm like Tiger Woods, only we're talking a different decimal point."

Greg Johnson is the golf writer for the Grand Rapids Press.

In Buddy's Bag:
Callaway Big Bertha 8.5 degree driver; Taylor Made 3 wood; Titleist DCI pro blade irons with 6.5 rifle shaft; Taylor Made, Cleveland and Titleist wedges; Old Master small mallet putter.

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