You can safely say that Will Sowles carries the most diverse to-do list of any golfer at this week’s BellSouth Senior Classic. In attempting to finish high in the tournament, he’ll practice every day this week. He’ll try to remember not to waste shots and to be less aggressive with his putter. He also needs to sell some potatoes.
Sowles, a lifelong Memphian, has crisscrossed the country as a food-service broker for years. He has traveled on the Senior Tour circuit for only a few months. So it’s perhaps understandable that he’s not giving up his original job as a rep for Ore-Ida potatoes.
Unless you follow the Senior Tour religiously, or join the tournament galleries in time for the early-morning tee-offs, you may not be familiar with Sowles. Or with fellow rookie John Morgan, whose career victories include the 1982 Ivory Coast Open and the 1986 Sierra Leone Open. Or David Oakley, who spent 10 years as a hotel liquidator before earning a spot on the Senior Tour. Or Bob Duval, who spent most of his career as a teaching and course professional in north Florida.
Unlike almost every other golfer at the BellSouth, nobody among this foursome was ever a marquee money-winner on the PGA Tour. Except for Duval, who played in a couple dozen major tournaments near his Florida home, none ever played in a single PGA event.
Now Sowles, Duval, Morgan, and Oakley play in the company of the world’s premier golfers over the age of 50. Mostly just spectators themselves until recently, they’re living every fan’s fantasy: to play alongside legends like Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, and Hale Irwin.
“It’s totally a dream,” says Sowles, who still gets a little tingly remembering how he met Palmer, his boyhood hero. “In Charlotte [earlier this year], I was in the player’s lounge, and he came in. I was so shocked I couldn’t talk. I finally asked for his autograph, and all I had to write on was my visor.”
Sowles, an outstanding amateur player, and Duval, who watched his son David become a rising star on the PGA Tour, both came to a realization as they reached 50.
“When I was 25 to 30, I figured I was good enough to play the tour if I went out and tried,” says Duval. “But I had two club jobs and a family, and I just never tried.” If he didn’t make his bid now, he concluded, he never would.
The same bug bit Sowles, and with equal severity. “I tried professional golf in ’73 and wasn’t good enough, so I gave it up,” he recalls. “Four or five years ago I started back playing competitive amateur golf. Then I went to my wife, Margaret, and my family and told them what I thought I would try to do. They told me I should try it.”
So Sowles bequeathed all but two of his food-service accounts to his former partner, embarked on a rigorous training regimen (four hours every day of Stairmaster and Nautilus), grabbed his clubs, and never looked back.
To earn a spot on the Senior Tour, Sowles, Duval, and scores of other aspirants had to compete against each other in the PGA’s four-day annual qualifying tournament“Q School,” the players call it. Sowles, who now reckons himself a million-to-1 shot, led everyone at last year’s school after the first two rounds. “Nobody knew who I was or where I was staying,” he recalls. “Nobody even interviewed me until after it was all over. [He finished second.] I guess I beat the odds because I didn’t know any better.”
Duval, who competed on the Tour a year ago, finished 18th at the ’96 Q Schoolgood enough to earn another spot on the Tour, but not good enough, given the PGA’s almost indecipherably arcane formula, to guarantee a place in every event. Many weeks, he must attempt to qualify for the tournament via an 18-hole Monday elimination round.
After arriving from Chicago after midnight Sunday, Duval was off before daylight to Murfreesboro, where he shot a 68 to win a spot among the BellSouth field. “My wife was caddying for me today,” Bob says. “I was 2 under with three holes to play, and Shari said, ‘You’d better make two more putts.’ Fortunately, I did.”
A frenetic, if-it’s-Monday-this-must-be-Nashville travel schedule is only one of the rigors imposed by the Senior Tour. Day after day, the game becomes physically draining too. “I’ve played 37 straight days,” says Sowles, who earns extra money by participating in Monday pro-am events, then practices every free day. “To play that many days in a row kind of beats you down. Then, three days a week, you’re under intense [tournament] pressure.” On top of everything else, he’ll call on a food-service customer while he’s in Nashville and check his messages several times each day to make sure that orders are filled and that deliveries arrive on time.
The mental game, says Duval, is more arduous still. “When you get in a tournament, it’s not like playing your regular game of golf. I put so much pressure on myself to perform instead of just letting it happen. I still get nervous and jumpy. I’m still learning.”
And having to play alongside championship golfers like Trevino and Gil Morgan doesn’t help. “They’re regular guys,” says Duval. “But because I’ve seen them so much on TV, I sometimes find myself watching them more than concentrating on my own game.”
Still, Duval and Sowles are holding their own. Last weekend, at the Ameritech Open outside Chicago, each won $5,400. They were far from the leaders. But not nearly so far as a couple of years ago, when they were merely watchers from the gallery.
“I’d be in a pro-am and people would ask me, ‘How many tournaments have you played in?’ ” Sowles recalls. “And I’d say, ‘This is my third.’
“Then they’d ask for advice on a shot or hit a bad one, and I could tell them I had been in their position just last November. I can totally relate to them.”
Perhaps it’s easier for the duffers in the crowd to relate to golfers like Sowles and Duval than to the legendary figures whose drives draw oohs and ahs. The senior rookies provide living, breathing testimony that not all aspirations go unfulfilled.
“I dreamed my whole life about this,” says Sowles. “When you’re a kid on the course, you dream about making that five-footer to win the Masters. Well, I’ve made my five-footer.
“I haven’t played good enough yet to play with Hale Irwin or Ray Floyd. But every day is a new day. A lot of them are like Christmas Day. It’s a wonderful life. I can’t think of anybody I’d rather have doing it than me.”
In the midst of this walking fantasy, one disquieting reality looms for Duval and Sowles and the other Q-schoolers. Unless they win an event on the Senior Tour, or finish among the top 31 money winners for the year, they’ll have to survive the annual qualifying tournament all over again, just as Duval did last year.
Not that Sowles, who still dreams one day of playing in a foursome with Arnold Palmer, seems particularly daunted by the prospect of another Q School. “I feel like, ‘I made it once; I can make it again,’ ” he says. “I’ll know more what I have to do. I won’t be afraid.
“I won’t be a million-to-1 shot next time. Maybe just 750,000-to-1.”