Tracy Phillips' Circle Brings Him into Contention and Back to Golf
Tracy Phillips, PGA, once was the No. 1 junior in the nation, and an Oklahoma hotshot whose tall legend belied his 5-foot, 4-inch frame. Yes, before Twitter and Instagram, there were just names, and wildly good scores, and mythical tales and sightings that made an up-and-coming junior golfer sound like Paul Bunyan ... times three.
Then light, at least for the longest time, burned out. College swing issues derailed Phillips, and he was more than happy to leave golf behind him for 20 years, missing it less and less as it became a tiny speck in the mirror. When you cannot keep a golf ball on the planet with the driver, golf is as enjoyable as a four-hour lecture. Good riddance, he thought. He bought a fishing boat.
Here he is, all these years later, Phillips and golf, together again. It’s not that he is competing at the 82nd KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship at Harbor Shores. Through two rounds, Phillips is contending, too. And having fun. And glad to be back.
“It’s a pretty cool thing,” Phillips said after a second-round, 3-under 68 pushed him to 5-under 137, and within shouting distance of the lead heading into the weekend. Scott McCarron and Stephen Ames shared the midway lead at 8-under 134.
Phillips, 59, is one of 39 PGA Professionals at Harbor Shores this week, Head Professionals and coaches who work full-time but get the opportunity to measure their games against the likes of Bernhard Langer, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington and Retief Goosen. Through two rounds, Phillips was the low man amongst his Club Pro brethren.
Phillips is a short-game specialist. That’s his forte in the instruction arena, as well as the strength of his own game. At 5-4, he doesn’t hit it long, and magic in his hands around the greens helps him to squeeze everything he can out of a round. Early Friday, coming off bogey on his opening par 5, he saved par on his second hole (the par-3 11th) with a putt made from 30 feet. On the par-4 first (his 10th), he rolled in a 45-footer with 4 feet of break in it.
Phillips’ 68 came early and on the better end of the week's draw. Players going late-early got warm and calm Thursday afternoon and not as much rain as their counterparts on Friday. At Harbor Shores, temperatures dipped into the 50s, cold rains fell and winds from the north whipped hard off nearby Lake Michigan. Phillips bogeyed his opening hole, the par-5 10th, and didn’t feel very steady over his shots in the early going. Starting on the par-5 15th, though, he hit his stride. He ran off five birdies in an eight-hole stretch. It was fun for him to see his name climb the board. He hardly was walking alone.
Phillips’ dad, Buddy Phillips, was a PGA legend in Tulsa, the Head Professional at Cedar Ridge Country Club, where Tracy now works as the PGA Director of Instruction, for 40 years. Buddy started taking his son to the golf course when Tracy was 2, and the son would chip and putt from dawn until dark. If there is a short-game shot to attempt, Tracy hit it 10,000 times. Buddy was here in Michigan at Harbor Shores in 2014 when Tracy qualified for his first KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship. Tracy played pretty well and made the cut, eventually tying for 71st.
Buddy Phillips died of a heart attack in August 2020. On Friday, when Tracy wasn’t off to the best of starts, he felt his dad out there with him.
“I obviously got off to a rocky start, didn’t hit it very good the first couple holes,” he said. “I felt Dad’s presence towards the tail end of that nine. I got it up-and-down a couple times early in the round for pars and just felt like he calmed my nerves a little bit.
“It felt good.”
Tracy Phillips lost in the Junior PGA Championship finals to Rick Fehr in 1979 and won the prestigious title the following year, defeating a future PGA Tour Professional, John Inman. Phillips was a four-time Rolex All-American, which remains rarified air. Phillips signed with Coach Mike Holder and Oklahoma State, an Oklahoma kid's dream. The Cowboys program sends young college stars to the pro ranks as if they’ve fallen off an assembly line. First tournament, Phillips blitzed the field and won by 10. Ho-hum.
But Phillips got crossed up in new swing theories, and he began hitting tee shots that started in Oklahoma and were finishing in Texas. He thought he could fix things, and worked at it, but he could not. It was no fun. He tried playing professionally in Malaysia, with very little success.
So it was bye, bye golf for the longest time. For twenty years the two drifted off from one another.
About 2007 or 2008, an old golf pal of his from Tulsa, Vince Bizik, fully aware of the worldly talent Phillips once possessed, invited Phillips out to join some buddies for a few fun nine-hole rounds. They’d travel all over, often playing on Mondays, when many courses were closed. They’d go to Shangri-La up in Grand Lake, or head off to Pryor. They’d play games, and soon the hook was back in Phillips. He started playing better. His interest returned.
Weather-wise, Friday was not a great day for golf up in Michigan. The calendar claims it is late May; Friday felt like March. In his black hooded sweatshirt, Phillips kept plodding along. He was busily reeling off birdies at Harbor Shores, and sure seemed to be enjoying himself.
“Thankful” was a word he used after the round. Thankful for a great support system in his wife and daughter, and for the two Tulsa-area retired PGA Professionals here with him who are rotating as his caddie this week. Pat Tubach was on the bag Friday; Rick Reed will have it on Saturday. Both men worked for Tracy’s dad at Cedar Ridge. The circle never ends.
Phillips is thankful Bizik made the call to get him out playing once again. It led him to this week at Harbor Shores. So far, his week, his experience, has been great. The best stuff. If he were here, Buddy Phillips would enjoy this so much. Perhaps he is.
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