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PGA Championship 2024: He quit the game for 20 years, now this 61-year-old has bucket-list spot in his first major

2024 PGA Professional Championship

Tracy Phillips hits his tee shot during the final round of the PGA Professional Championship in May.

Ryan Lochhead/PGA of America

No one quits golf for 20 years and then magically qualifies for his first major championship at an age when many guys are starting to wind down their competitive careers. That just sounds crazy. “It’s totally crazy,” said Tracy Phillips, who is only too happy to simultaneously have checked off “do something crazy” and “play in a major” from his bucket list.

One of 21 club professionals in the field at this week’s 106th PGA Championship in Louisville, Ky., Phillips stands out—all 5 feet, 4 inches of him—as the most intriguingly obscure figure at Valhalla Golf Club. He is a 61-year-old teaching pro out of Oklahoma who once was a hotshot junior and a college All-American. Davis Love III labeled Phillips as perhaps the finest player that almost no one has heard of. Legendary instructor Harvey Penick once wrote that Phillips owned one of the best short games he ever saw.

Phillips was practically born to play golf until he swallowed an elixir of frustration and burnout and left the game that was his father’s passion and calling until his last breath.

“Dad would have loved this. He might not have believed it either,” Phillips said of his father Buddy, who died in 2020 after serving nearly 60 years as a club professional and instructor.

At one time, the old man probably would have expected it. He raised a prodigy, one who just about hit the ground running in golf. Well, it’s more accurate to say he nearly, um, hit the ground at a golf course as his mom was running off it. In late 1962, Doris Phillips was watching her husband play at Artesia Country Club in New Mexico, where he was head pro, when she went into labor. Made it to the hospital in time to deliver a boy and avoid the two-shot penalty for arriving late to the tee.

2024 PGA Professional Championship

Tracy Phillips hits his shot during the final round of the PGA Professional Championship in May. His top-20 finish in the event qualified him for this week's PGA Championship at age 61.

Ryan Lochhead/PGA of America

Tracy started playing golf at age 2, loved to practice, and became a proficient scorer—and that was before Penick took him under his wing as an occasional pupil. He went on to become a four-time AJGA All-American from 1978-81 and was No. 1 in Golf Digest’s junior rankings in 1979. In 1980, Phillips won Junior PGA Championship and then headed to the vaunted golf program at Oklahoma State University. He won his first college event by 10 strokes.

After earning second-team All-American honors, he allowed himself to be talked into changing his swing. He developed the driver yips, left OSU, tried the Asian Tour, lost 15 pounds and most of the rest of his mojo, and then caught the first faint whiff of what eventually was the full conflagration of burnout.

2024 PGA Professional Championship

Tracy Phillips walks off the 18th hole during the final round of the PGA Professional Championship.

Ryan Lochhead/PGA of America

Phillips still loved being in the game and turned his attention to teaching. Among his mentors was Hank Haney. He went to work for his father at Cedar Ridge Country Club, near Tulsa, where he remains today as Director of Instruction. Meanwhile, Phillips didn’t touch his clubs for 20 years, though he did carry them during a three-year stint as caddie for Kelli Kuehne on the LPGA Tour.

He took up fishing in his spare time, telling friends he would “rather go to the dentist than play golf.” He actually felt relief eschewing the course, but then a fellow pro, Vince Bizik, a friend from junior golf, coaxed him back. They played casual rounds together. Phillips began to enjoy himself, and he rediscovered his long-lost knack for scoring. His competitive chops were still intact, too, and by 2014 he qualified for the first of four appearances in the Senior PGA Championship. In 2022, Phillips was the tournament’s low club pro, finishing T-17 at five-under 279 at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Mich., and a few months later in his only start in the U.S. Senior Open, he finished 24th at Saucon Valley in Bethlehem, Pa.

Still, Phillips only once got close to the top 20 in the PGA Professional National Championship, the magic number necessary for an exemption into the PGA Championship. That also occurred in 2022 when he ended up T-28 after a final-round 77 at Barton Creek in Austin, Texas. “I missed by two. That was a tough one,” he said. “It was a good chance, but it probably helped me out. It gave me a lot of confidence.”

Well, chance is an angel. Confidence is wind under the wings.

Despite seven weather delays and having to play 30 holes on the third day of this year’s PGA Professional Championship, Phillips, among the oldest contestants in the 312-player field, somehow persevered. He posted rounds of 72-70 at Fields Ranch in Frisco, Texas, to make the cut, added a third-round 75 while staving off fatigue, and then gathered himself for another three-over 75 amid stiff breezes to tie for eighth.

“It wasn’t the greatest circumstances for a guy my age dealing with all the delays,” Phillips said. “I was proud of how I hung in there.”

Facing a golf course that tops out at 7,609 yards and will play longer because of recent rainfall, Phillips is tempering his expectations at Valhalla, knowing he’ll be employing plenty of metal woods and utility clubs into the greens. During practice rounds he has hit, at most, eight full iron shots. “It’s going to be brutal for a guy who doesn’t hit it very far and will struggle to get it out of the rough, so I have to be in the fairway and get it up and down where I can,” he said, chuckling. “I’m interested to see what kind of numbers I’ll be looking at [for approach shots].”

It's not that scoring isn’t important; the guy is a pro golfer. He wants to acquit himself decently playing the opening two rounds with Denny McCarthy and Japan’s Keita Nakajima. But savoring the experience is top of mind. On Tuesday afternoon, Phillips found himself hitting balls on the range next to Louisville native and two-time PGA champion Justin Thomas. He’d love to say hello to Tiger Woods, whom he met in 1996 when Kuehne and Woods were teammates in the JCPenney Classic mixed-team event. “It’s neat stuff,” he agreed.

“To think at my age and taking that much time off that I could have enough game left to be able to do some of these things is something I’m proud of,” said Phillips, who next week returns to Harbor Shores for another start in the Senior PGA. “I’m blessed, really, to play in a major championship this late in my career. It’s going to be something. It’s pretty crazy.”

There’s that word again: crazy.

Phillips is golf’s version of Jack Dundee, the Robin Williams character in the 1986 movie, “The Best of Times,” who seeks a measure of redemption by replaying a high school football game that he was responsible for losing more than a decade earlier. Dundee is repeatedly told, “Jack, you can’t play that game again.” Redemption isn’t on Phillips’ agenda, though.

Late last year, in the days immediately following his 61st birthday, Phillips played in the PGA Tour Champions final qualifying tournament, getting a spot in the field after finishing joint fourth in the Senior Club Pro Championship. Though he didn’t earn a card, he enjoyed the challenge, shooting even-par 284 at TPC Scottsdale to finish T-47. “My game is in a good place. It has been for a couple of years,” Phillips said. “I’m having fun with it, and for a long time I didn’t think that would ever happen again.”

Phillips just wants to keep playing the game. And he should. He is still good at it. Never mind his results this week at Valhalla. The proof is in being there.