Mabrey stays hopeful in long pursuit of PGA Tour card

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By Ken MacLeod

Hope Springs Eternal was first a phrase in an Alexander Pope poem An Essay on Man in 1733. It has since been the title of books, films, songs and borrowed liberally by sports announcers and writers in describing the quixotic quests of many an unlikely dreamer.

It could be the mantra for the professional career of former University of Tulsa golfer Matt Mabrey, who at 31 is still doggedly pursuing his dream of reaching the PGA Tour despite a body of work in eight years of playing full time on mini-tours that would indicate that destination is beyond his reach. The same could be said for hundreds of others around the world.

For example, in nine events thus far in 2023 on the APT (All-Pro Tour), Mabrey has made one cut and $670. Yet there he was in Muskogee last week, just a few months removed from nearly quitting the game for the nth time, forking over a $5,000 entry fee to compete in the 72-hole first stage Korn Ferry Tour qualifier.

And Mabrey didn’t just contribute to the purse. He went out and shot rounds of 67-73-68 to finish at 5-under, tied for ninth and move on to Second Stage for the fourth time since concluding his highly successful TU career  in 2015.

To earn a Korn Ferry Tour card for 2024, Mabrey must advance through the Second Stage to Final Stage. There are five Second Stage events, three of them Nov. 14-17 and the other two Nov 28-Dec. 1. Final Stage is Dec. 14-17 at TPC Sawgrass at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

The closest Mabrey has come was his first year out of Tulsa, when he was paired with Talor Gooch of Midwest City in the final round and missed advancing by a single shot. Gooch earned his card and this weekend cashed in an $18 million bonus for being the season-long points champion on LIV Golf.

Are the games of Mabrey and Gooch separated by the gulf that their financial circumstances would indicate? What makes the razor thin difference between all the former collegiate All-Americans trying to reach the elite level and those who do?

The allure of the PGA Tour life and the love of the game that Mabrey shares with countless others makes it a hard dream to relinquish. Blake Trimble pursued it until he was nearly 40 before going into coaching and is now the coach at Oklahoma City University. Former Oklahoma State golfer Trent Whitekiller of Sallisaw pursued his dreams into his mid 30s. There are countless other examples.

The gold standard for late bloomers was Tom Lehman, who graduated from college in 1982 but didn’t reach the tour full time until 1992, then went on to become the No. 1 player in the world in 1996, capped off by his resounding victory in the 1996 Tour Championship at Southern Hills.

Mabrey, who will become a father in the new year, said he’s been fortunate to be supported by his wife Chelsea and other family and sponsors allowing him to chase his dream this long but realizes a decision is looming. Another failure to advance past second stage could hasten that decision. Still, as mentioned, hope springs eternal. After missing a string of cuts on the APT, he went to Tulsa instructor Tracy Phillips and his ball striking has improved markedly. He also at Phillips’ suggestion began to work with mental game coach Billy Ray Young of Tulsa.

“He talked me off the ledge,” Mabrey said of Young.  “He really helped rejuvenate my passion for the game. I used to be so strong mentally back in college and early in my pro career, but years of pro golf had weighed me down. I didn’t ever realize how negative I’d become. I would show up at a tournament thinking about how I was going to screw it up instead of just going out to play well.”

Phillips said Young has helped him with his own mental game and that Mabrey is a much improved golfer from the one that came to him a year ago.

“Matt certainly has the tools,” Phillips said. “His ball striking is really good right now. It’s a fine line between making it and not making it and a lot of it is how we think.

“I’m really proud of him for how he handled it this last week, particularly shooting that low number in the last round when all the pressure is on and you know you would have to wait another year.”

Golf can be a maddening enterprise for all of us who play and particularly so when you’ve reached an elite level and the degrees of separation are compressed. Mabrey, who has competed in PGA Tour events and major championships, remains confident that his game can stack up on a given week. It just has to be the right week.

“The crazy thing at this point is I’ll be fine either way,” he said.  “I love the game and would love to play it every day for a living. If not, I’m fine with being a full-time working dad and a husband and a father. I’m just going to give it my best shot and if I get there, I get there.”

The mini-tour life can be a lonely one and Mabrey has shared a lot of it with former TU teammate Logan McCracken, who was also in Muskogee last week. McCracken did reach Final Stage the past two years and earned enough Korn Ferry Tour status that he got in six events in 2023, making one cut. But after missing the cut in First Stage he is back to the mini-tours for 2024 if he elects to continue.

“Even if things don’t work out I wouldn’t go back and do things any differently,” Mabrey said “The highs outweigh the lows. It’s a very rewarding game, but it can also hurt you a lot. It’s been a fun journey for me going back and relearning how to be mentally strong. All the stuff I’ve forgotten about is what used to make me good. I could punch myself in the face for forgetting. And the majority of it is just thinking positively.”

Here’s to Mabrey getting his shot. Hope springs eternal.


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Ken MacLeod

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