Friday, January 13, 2012

You never forget your first

When you’re 40 years old and playing in your first PGA Tour round, the word assigned to you, rather than “rookie,” might as well be “virgin.”

Gary Christian
Nobody said sportswriters are original thinkers.

Well, Gary Christian has lost his innocence, and it only took two holes.

The Englishman started his first PGA round on the back nine at Waialae Country Club, site of the Sony Open of Hawaii, and No. 10, his first hole, was smooth as silk — a birdie.

Then it got gnarly. His tee shot on No. 11, a 196-yard par-3, clipped a big frond of the palm tree just left of the green … and disappeared. The TV camera couldn’t find it, officials couldn’t find it, he couldn’t find it. All he can figure is the palm tree ate his ball. He took a drop, and a double,

“An interesting start to my PGA career,” said Christian, who went on from there to shoot 73, three over par. He sat in a tie for 89th after the first day, 10 strokes behind leader Graham DeLaet.

Christian had bogies on 15 and 16 on the first (back) nine, then played the front nine in even par, birdieing No. 9 to offset his lone bogey on No. 3.

“It was just nice to get back playing again,” said Christian, who hadn’t played a tournament round in 10 weeks. “You lose that competitive edge.”

He’ll need some birdies today (he tees off at 1:10 p.m. Honolulu time) if he wants to play on the weekend. He was upbeat about his first PGA round — he hit it solidly and was not inordinately nervous, he said.

“I just didn’t putt well enough today,” he said Thursday night.

Of the 24 PGA Tour rookies who teed off in Honolulu, Christian is the oldest.

Christian was a “decent amateur” in England, he says. He first took up a golf club when his dad cut down some hickory-shafted irons for him at age 2 or 3. Golf came naturally to him, but he didn’t pick it up again seriously until his mid-teens.

He came to the U.S. to play at a two-year college in Wallace, Ala., and did well enough to earn a scholarship to Auburn University. As a junior, he was all-Southeastern Conference; as a senior, he said, “I fell off the face of the Earth.”

He scuffled on various mini-tours, where you might pay $800 or more to enter a tournament.

"You can play pretty decent and still not make food money for the week," he said. "Every penny counts, but it’s a great proving ground. It teaches you how to win.”

HeChristian eventually went on to play 165 events on the Nationwide Tour. He broke out in 2011, when he won once (the Mylan Classic), with three top-10s and 10 top-25s, and earned more than $260,000, ninth on the Nationwide money list and solidly among “The 25” Nationwide money-winners who earn PGA Tour status.

No matter what happens today in Honolulu, or on the weekend if he makes the cut, he’ll be on TV on Sunday. Christian is among the featured players on “Ticket to the Tour,” which airs on NBC at 2:30 p.m.

“Mine’s obviously an interesting story,” Christian said. He hopes, after the first few tournaments, that he’ll be known less for his age, his rookie status and the undeniably good tale he can tell … and more for how well he’s playing.

Gary Christian, a virgin no more.

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