By Jeff Babineau
Tracy Phillips has been a lot of things in his 59 years on this Earth. Junior phenom, touring professional, Club Professional, LPGA caddie, short-game coach … and he now has a line to add: Magician.
Phillips is one of 39 PGA Professionals at this week’s KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship, testing his game against the best over-50 players in the world, and is one of seven to make it to the weekend. In Saturday’s third round, playing alongside Ernie Els, a four-time major champion and World Golf Hall of Famer, Phillips shot 1-under 70, moving to 6-under 207 for the tournament. He is tied for 13th.
It wasn’t all about the numbers, though. It was how Phillips got there, making a par at the difficult par-4 seventh that surely was worthy of and ESPN Top 10 roll call. Els certainly thought so.
Phillips was plugging along on a perfect, sun-splashed day at Harbor Shores when he tugged a 5-iron long and left at the uphill 436-yard seventh hole, the errant shot appearing to have left the golf course. But he found the ball lying in a very beachy lie in some soft sand next to a parking lot. He had tall weeds behind the ball and reeds in front of it. He opened the face, took a mighty lash, and the ball bounded just short of the green, trickled out, and finished 6 feet from the flagstick. There was little doubt on the putt. After such a Houdini-esque escape, he pretty much had to make it.
“It was huge,” said Phillips. “I mean, that could have easily been a double or triple bogey, possibly. To get that up and down … pretty crazy!”
Els, who has seen a few things in his day, called it one of the most amazing pars he ever has seen in his life.
“It was one of the most amazing shots, one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Els said, still marveling at it four hours after it had happened. “I said to him, ‘Seve would have been very proud of you there.’ It was that good.”
Through 54 holes, Phillips leads the way among the PGA Professionals in the field. Seven teed it up on Saturday, some turning in nice performances. Tim Weinhart (Heritage Golf Links, Tucker, Georgia) shot 71 and is tied for 43rd, one shot ahead of fellow Georgia Section Pro Paul Claxton (Richmond Hill Golf Club), who opened with 65 on Thursday. Tim Fleming, another former Oklahoma State golfer who entered the Cowboys program just as Phillips was leaving, shot even-par 71. He is tied for 52nd. He is the PGA Head Professional at Oklahoma City Golf & Country Club.
Other Club Professionals competing on the weekend: Omar Uresti (75), Bob Sowards (78), who tied for fourth a year ago, and Neal Lancaster (76). Fleming said with the way that Phillips has performed, and with Fleming making the cut, the South Central PGA Section has ample reason to celebrate.
“I’m proud of both of us, I really am,” said Fleming. After two very steady days, which included fighting through the wind and rain just to make the cut on Friday, Fleming made six birdies and six bogeys on Saturday. “I was all over the map.”
Of Phillips, with whom he played a couple of practice rounds this week, Fleming said, “Tracy does what you’re supposed to do. He hits it straight off the tee. He hits crisp iron shots, and he makes putts. He has a good short game. He doesn’t have any weaknesses. I actually wonder, what happens when he plays bad? I can’t imagine him playing bad.”
Phillips won a recent U.S. Senior Open qualifier played in horrendous weather in Kansas by four shots, shooting 67, so he has another major just around the corner. Phillips was once the No. 1 junior in the nation, earning a scholarship to college powerhouse Oklahoma State. But he struggled with the driver yips, left school after two years, had a short-lived pro career, and not very long afterward would quit golf for 20 years. A friend coaxed him back into the game with some fun Monday nine-hole rounds.
Outside of his incredible heroics on the seventh at Harbor Shores, Phillips was relatively steady on Saturday. He birdied the par-5 10th and then the par-3 11th, which seemed to calm his nerves for the home stretch. At 12, he kept his momentum with a downhill slider from 10 feet for par that tumbled across the front of the cup on its last revolution.
“This whole week, I’ve been able to make the crucial putts to save par,” he said, “to sustain momentum during the course of the round.”
Phillips also made the cut at the KitchenAid Senior PGA at Harbor Shores in 2014. That time he tied for 71st, going off with the dew sweepers. This time, he’ll have a chance to play well, maybe climb into the top 10. He tees off at 11:33 a.m. on Sunday alongside Els (return engagement) and Ricardo Gonzalez. Should he finish in the top 15, he’ll earn a spot into next year’s KitchenAid Senior PGA in Frisco.
“Obviously I came here and felt like I was playing well, swinging well, and got off to a good first two days,” Phillips said. Today … I didn’t quite hit it as well as I would have liked, but just hung in there.”
And along the way, he pulled off an up-and-down for the ages. Let’s hope somebody at home in Oklahoma got that one on tape. His cell phone has been inundated with good wishes from back home. He also left the course early Saturday evening having earned a new fan.
“He’s a wonderful guy,” said Els, the Hall of Famer from South Africa who also is 6 under par. “He was a pleasure to play with. He’s a hard-working pro who does up to 65 hours of teaching in a week. That’s a whole lot of work.
“And for him to do this, he should be proud. He was an absolute gentleman.”