U.S. Open sectional qualifier is a first for Quail Valley club

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – The life of a professional golfer seems a glamorous one.

They travel the world, play the greatest courses, stay at wonderful locations and make a seven-figure annual salary … if they’re good enough to make it on the PGA Tour.

But for every Tommy Gainey who made it onto the PGA Tour, there are hundreds of Tommy Gibsons trying to make it.

And before they advance to golf’s brightest stage, they endure long car rides, budget hotels and too many fast-food dinners to remember.

But next Monday, Gibson can put a little fast-forward on his fledgling pro career when he attempts to qualify for the U.S. Open in a 36-hole sectional qualifier at Quail Valley Golf Club in Vero Beach.

This marks the first time Vero Beach has ever been the final stop to the national golf championship, and this unique opportunity has Gibson and Brett Stegmaier, another player with Vero Beach connections, believing they can make it to Congressional Country Club for the 111th U.S. Open.

“To be honest, I thought it was kind of bizarre when I found out the sectional was in Vero Beach,” said Gibson, an assistant pro at Bent Pine Golf Club who recently made it through local qualifying at the Indian River Club. “But then I started looking at it as a blessing, a sign that this year could be my year.”

Of course, all young golf professionals are looking for a sign, any sign, their game is developing and arcing toward the PGA Tour.

Gibson, a 22-year-old who moved from Mount Airy, N.C., to Vero Beach four years ago, falls into that category.

So does Stegmaier, who recently sold his condo in Vero Beach and has spent the last six months traveling around the country playing mini-tours. (It was no coincidence that Gibson and Stegmaier spent last week in Pinehurst playing in the same mini-tour event.) “It’s a pretty small world out here,” Gibson said of the mini-tour circuit.

While Stegmaier won’t be able to sleep in his own bed for the Vero qualifier, he has plenty of local knowledge to rely on.

Two years ago, he worked at Quail Valley and has keen insight on the respected layout.

“I know the golf course as well as anyone,” Stegmaier said. “It’s a very tough course, and they can make it as tough as they want.”

Stegmaier, 27, also knows his clock is ticking a little faster than Gibson’s. Stegmaier had a great career at the University of Florida, twice winning the individual SEC title, but that success has yet to translate during his five years as a professional.

Stegmaier missed advancing to last year’s final stage of the PGA Tour’s Qschool by a shot, which is a bitter blow to a young pro.

If he had made it to the final stage, he could have advanced to the PGA Tour or Nationwide Tour.

But because he missed by a shot, he spent last week in Pinehurst playing for a fraction of the purse money.

Stegmaier will smile if someone mentions the glamour of his profession.

He knows it’s been anything but as he tries to escape the cycle of frustration since leaving UF.

“I had a good career coming out of college and was feeling pretty good about things,” Stegmaier said. “Then, for whatever reason, I didn’t play well my first two years. Then I had some wrist surgeries. Then I got sick of playing. Then I ran out of money. Then I started playing better, so I decided to get serious about playing again.”

Gibson has yet to face those career hazards. He made it to the U.S. Open sectional stage last year, failing to advance, though he was fortunate to get paired with Mark Wilson (who has won twice this year on the PGA Tour) and Josh Teater in the qualifier at Columbus, Ohio.

“I played great the first 15 holes, but then got a little off track and tired during the second 18 holes,” Gibson said. “But I learned a lot that day just watching Mark and Josh, the way they went about their business. It was definitely a great learning experience.”

Gibson’s father, Tom, a PGA professional who manages a golf club in North Carolina, was the one who convinced his son to move to Vero Beach to take advantage of the warmer weather and better facilities.

Tom has some experience in grooming young golfers – when Tom lived in Miami, he taught LPGA star Cristie Kerr when she was a junior.

Tom’s advice to his son for the U.S. Open sectional qualifier will be simple: “Patience,” he said. “It’s a long event and you’re going to make mistakes. People forget when Tiger Woods won his first Masters by 12, he shot 40 on the front nine. You have time to recover if you get off to a bad start.”

Stegmaier also is trying to remain patient with his game. He can take solace in knowing if he had picked another sport to be a professional athlete, his career might already be over.

“Twenty-seven isn’t old for a professional golfer,” Stegmaier said. “I feel my game has gotten better every year, even though the results might not show that. I know I have all the tools and all the talent; it’s just a matter of using the tools a little better, managing my game a little better.”

Both players will walk on the first tee Monday at Quail Valley dealing with feelings of nervousness and confidence.

Not only do they know the course, but many in the gallery will know them.

“There will probably be a least 50 people following me,” Gibson said. “I love it when people come out and watch me play. I eat it up. It makes me want to put on a show. Hopefully, I can give them a reason to make some noise out there.”

There are 56 players in the U.S. Open sectional field, with two or three players expected to advance


Editor’s Note: Craig Dolch is a golfing columnist for VeroNew.com’s sister publication Vero Beach 32963.

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