Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Is he Champion material?


Elfers takes a swing against pressure, nerves as he tries to qualify for over-50 circuit

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Standing in the light, Bermuda-grass rough Tuesday, 124 yards from the flag, Tom Elfers pulled the pitching wedge from his golf bag. Perfect distance for that club, he figured. Normally, Elfers hits his wedge between 120 and 130 yards.

This wasn't normal, though. It was as far from normal as most golfers are likely to get. This was the 16th hole of the first round of the Champions Tour Qualifying Tournament. It was 110 players, down from 250 last week, competing for seven spots on the 2004 Champions Tour. On the PGA and Champions Tours, Q-School is as much pressure as anyone will ever face. It does strange things to players. "People have no idea," Elfers said.

The event is in Coral Springs, Fla., just west of Pompano Beach. Elfers has been in Florida nearly a month. He has been preparing his whole life. At least as much as someone with family and professional callings can prepare for one all-or-nothing golf tournament.

In 1999, when he was 49, Elfers took a two-year leave of absence from teaching school at New Richmond High to practice for his shot at the Champions Tour. He'd seen the guys on TV, a collection of mostly obscure Never Weres from the bottom of the PGA Tour barrel or the top of the club pro ranks, and he thought, "I could do that."

Between the ages of 50 and 55, Doug Tewell made almost $10 million on what was then called the Senior PGA Tour. Give yourself a gold star if you've ever heard of Doug Tewell. Tom Elfers, the assistant golf coach at Xavier, thought with some practice, he could be Doug Tewell.

Elfers went once to PGA Tour school, right after college. He didn't make it. "Then he went about his career happily," Tom's wife, Jan, said. "But once the Senior Tour formed, it started to be on his mind."

People who play very good golf look at the seniors, with their slipping chests and trembling short games, and they think, "Give me a few years and I could do this." They see tournament courses set up no harder than what the members play, they believe they could turn their scratch games into a living. They, too, could be driving courtesy cars.

They do not know.

Tom Elfers has played in four Champions events in the last three years. He was the top Monday qualifier at the Kroger Classic a few years ago. He has game. This week would be his chance to prove it. At 53, it would be his last chance.

He pulled the pitching wedge from his bag at the par-4 16th. He swung. The shot he hit crippled his dream. "I hit it too good," Elfers said.

The ball flew 140 yards, bounced off the back edge of the green and into a pond. "I was too pumped up. When I'm like that, I hit the ball really solid, but I lose control."

This is what Q-School does to everyone, at one time or another. The only difference between Tom Elfers and the players who get their Tour cards is, he has been a full-time family man. Pro golf is a demanding mistress. It makes you choose.

Elfers bogeyed No. 16, double-bogeyed 17 and bogeyed 18. He shot a 79. To make the cut, he figures he has to shoot 69 today. He concedes that's not likely. Probably he'll be back at Xavier soon, sad he missed his almost-impossible dream but glad he took the chance. "I gave it my best shot," he said.

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E-mail pdaugherty@enquirer.com




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