By Ken MacLeod
His rousing success in recent senior major championships has convinced Tracy Phillips that yes, just like as a junior some 50 years ago, he can compete successfully against the best of his contemporaries.
Instead of just pocketing that knowledge with some grim satisfaction, next week Phillips is going to try to take the final step. His recent finish of fourth in the Senior Professional Championship earned an exemption into the final stage of qualifying for the PGA Tour Champions. Starting Tuesday, he will play 72 holes in a field of 78 for five fully exempt cards for the 2024 PGA Tour Champions. And he’s going in confident.
“I’m feeling good,” Phillips said Thursday. “I’m driving it well, my irons are good. It’s all going to be about how well you putt. Last year I think the winning score was 18-under and you had to shoot 13 under to get a card. So I think about 4-under every day would be good.”
The tournament is on the Champions Course at TPC Scottsdale, designed by Tulsan Randy Heckenkemper. It is next door to the famous Stadium Course where the Waste Management Phoenix Open takes place each year. Phillips leaves Saturday and by that afternoon will be playing a practice round with former student Brendon Jelley, who now lives in Scottsdale and is practicing for the final stage of Korn Ferry Tour qualifying coming up Dec. 14-17 at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Phillips, 60, has turned down other opportunities to try for a senior tour card, preferring to keep his schedule of teaching and playing in section events and which ever majors he could qualify for. But after finishing tied for 17th in the 2022 Senior PGA Championship, making the cut again in 2023, placing 24th in the 2022 U.S. Senior Open and consistently finishing high in both the PGA Professional Championship and the PGA Senior Professional Championship, Phillips is ready to to make a run at tour life.
When he won the PGA Junior Championship in 1980 after finishing second in 1979, Phillips was the top-ranked junior in the country. But after two years at Oklahoma State, some ill-advised swing changes and a herniated disc in his back, he lost his love for playing the game and became strictly a teacher for the next 20 years, owning his own practice facility and later serving as director of instruction at Cedar Ridge Country Club where his father Buddy Phillips was head PGA professional for 40 years. Finally convinced by friends to give it another try, he found his driver yips were gone and started having immediate success in local, regional and national events.
He’s proven he can again play with his contemporaries. What could he accomplish with a full season is intriguing to contemplate. We’ll see if he earns that opportunity next week.
“It’s a tough deal, five spots for 78 guys,” Phillips said. “But I’m ready to tee it up and go see what happens. It would be awesome. It’s something I wanted to do as a kid but obviously I’ve taken a lot different path to get to this point.”