All eyes on Phillips, Gooch in lead up to 2024 PGA Championship

Like and Follow Golf Oklahoma

By Ken MacLeod

The PGA Championship starts Thursday and while familiar names such as Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka may dominate headlines once play begins, right now it’s all about a pair of Oklahomans.

For 61-year-old Tulsa teaching professional Tracy Phillips, 44 years removed from winning the PGA Junior Championship and being the No. 1 ranked junior in the country, he is the feel-good story of the year since qualifying by finishing tied for eighth in the PGA Professional Championship last week at PGA Frisco.

Phillips will be the subject of numerous national feature stories next week. He is scheduled for a walk-and-talk on Thursday during the ESPN coverage. A national Associated Press feature story will go out early in the week. Phillips, who leaves at 5 a.m., Sunday for Louisville and the over 7,600-yard challenge that awaits him at Valhalla, is stoked about the opportunity.

“I’m really looking forward to this,” he said. “I look back to when I was a 15-year-old kid, I had every intention of playing the PGA Tour. Then to go through what I went through with the driver yips and not play competitively for over 20 years, to have this opportunity to play in a major championship is just incredible.”

Since records began being kept in 1990, Phillips is the oldest player to make his PGA Championship debut, the previous oldest was Jeff Hart (60 years, 3 months) in 2020. He will be the second-oldest club pro to make it to the PGA Championship since 1990, behind Jeff Roth (62 years, 11 months) in 2020 and will be the fourth club pro since 1990 to appear in the PGA Championship at age 60 or later, joining Roth, Sonny Skinner (60 years, 9 months in 2021) and Hart.

The other Oklahoman that has drawn national attention this week is Talor Gooch and his inclusion in the final field list announced Tuesday by the PGA of America has drawn praise as a common sense move by the PGA from some and been excoriated by others as a cave-in by the PGA of America to LIV and a shot at the PGA Tour and the other majors who are still respecting the validity of the Official World Golf Rankings and its decision not to award points to 54-hole, no-cut events on a tour that does not have qualifying.

Gooch, the Midwest City native and former All-American at Oklahoma State, is singular among the invitees in that he has maintained that his play on LIV, where he won three times in 2023 and was the No. 1 player, is reason enough for inclusion in all the major championships and that he does not need to seek WAGR points on the Asian Tour or elsewhere. He also won’t try to qualify for majors such as the U.S. Open or The Open that do not recognize LIV play. Some of his comments, such as that if Rory McIlroy won the Masters it would come with an asterisk due to the absence of LIV players, have drawn ridicule but he has stuck by his guns and now the PGA of America is the first major to directly recognize LIV play as a qualification.

The PGA of America may just be recognizing the reality that eventually many of the great players on LIV will soon have no WAGR standing and that conflicts with their desire to have the best field in golf for their major championship. It may all become moot if the PGA Tour and the Saudi Public Investment Fund ever reach an agreement on how the golf world could best be aligned.

For this week at least, Gooch will be in the spotlight to prove his inclusion was warranted, which certainly adds pressure for someone whose best finish in a major championship thus far has been a tie for 14th in The Masters.

Pulling a lot of head covers

 Phillips has always had a remarkable short game and he’ll need it next week at Valhalla. The course can play up to 7,609 yards with six par-4s over 470 and one par-3 of 254. The 5-foot-4 Phillips at age 61 has a driver carry of about 260 yards. If it rains as predicted, he may have a lot of second shots of well over 200 yards. A key will be that those come from the fairway and not the heavy rough.

“I probably won’t be pulling the 8-iron very often,” Phillips said. “There will be a lot of head covers being pulled off.”

Phillips has added a 6-hybrid to his bag in place of his 5-iron as it hits a nice high shot of about 195 yards, which he may need often.

“The length is just what’s in front of me and I just have to accept it and do the best I can,” he said. “It’s a bigger stage but it’s just me and golf ball and I have to beat the golf course where I can. My goal is to go out there and be in my own little world. The Good Lord has blessed me for sure in having the patience and ability to get better and earn this opportunity.”

Phillips said he is playing the week for his late father Buddy Phillips, the long-time PGA professional at Cedar Ridge Country Club in Broken Arrow, where Phillips still teaches at times.

Tracy Phillips with his father Buddy as a junior champion and later outside the Buddy Phillips Learning Center at Cedar Ridge.

“He would have loved this,” Phillips said. “I feel his presence every time I’m out there looking down on me. It made me very comfortable like when I played with Ernie Els (third round of the 2022 U.S. Senior Open) and it will again next week. He was a PGA professional for over 50 years including 40 at Cedar Ridge. So this is our championship.”

Tracy Phillips won the PGA Junior Championship in 1980. Now at 61 he’ll be competing in the PGA Championship for the first time.

Phillips won his first collegiate tournament at Oklahoma State by 10 shots and won his third as well. But he also developed the driver yips, suffered an injury and was so disgusted when he left school after two years that he eventually gave up trying to play competitively or even recreationally and devoted himself to teaching full time. Vince Bizik, long-time PGA pro at Cherokee Grove, talked him into joining his group and he eventually began playing in PGA South Central Section events with great success, leading to multiple appearances in the Kitchenaid Senior PGA Championship and in the 2022 U.S. Senior Open. He tried unsuccessfully to qualify for the PGA Tour Champions last fall but again will compete in the PGA Senior Championship in two weeks at Harbor Shores Resort in Benton Harbor, Mich.

Other players with Oklahoma ties in the field this week include two other former state junior standouts in Austin Eckroat and Taylor Moore. Former Oklahoma State players in the field besides Gooch, Phillips and Eckroat include Rickie Fowler, Wyndham Clark, Viktor Hovland and Alex Noren.


 

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Ken MacLeod

Publisher Golf Oklahoma | Oklahoma's No. 1 Golf Source

GOLF OKLAHOMA