LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England - Bob Estes could have been excused for giving up after his first six holes of round two at the British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes on Friday.
After teeing off at 6:30 a.m. local time, in near darkness, on a course dotted with tiny lakes where the bunkers used to be, and playing into a cold headwind for most of the front nine, he'd made two double bogeys and a bogey and was four over for the tournament. He'd ripped a drive into the breeze on the third hole--and still had 234 yards in. He'd hit a shot that embedded into a wall of sod on the sixth hole.
And yet Estes, 46, whose last of four Tour wins came a decade ago at the Kemper Insurance Open, an event that no longer exists, is not wired to give up. The fact that he's here at all testifies to that. He tied for eighth at Q-school last December to regain full status on Tour for 2012. He won a sectional qualifier to get into the U.S. Open at Olympic Club, and tied for 46th. He shot 66-65 and birdied the first hole of a four-for-three playoff at Gleneagles in Dallas to punch his ticket to Royal Lytham & St. Annes.
"He's the greatest qualifier ever," says Estes's agent, David Winkle, without much exaggeration.
And so at soggy Lytham he did what he does best: He battled. He steadied himself with pars at the par-5 seventh hole and par-4 eighth, then made his first birdie of the day at the par-3 ninth, which had been shortened from 165 to 153 yards. As he stood on the tee at the par-4 10th he saw his shadow for the first time all day. The wind had finally quit blowing. He birdied again.
After six more pars, Estes chipped in for a third birdie on 17 before saving par at the last for a back-from-the-abyss, highly respectable, two-over-par 72 and a one-over total at the halfway point.
"We got screwed with the tee time," Estes said. "Still, though, I should have shot better than 72."
If it seems like Estes has been around forever, that's because he has. After winning the Jack Nicklaus and Fred Haskins awards as college player of the year at Texas, Estes joined the Tour in 1989 and promptly won Rookie of the Year. (His instructor, Jim Flick, has been around forever plus about 10 years.) Estes was so consistent CBS's Gary McCord nicknamed him Robo-Pro.
Estes was told to take a drug test after his first-round 69 at Lytham on Thursday, which meant waiting around an extra 90 minutes, drinking an extra bottle of water or two.
"They probably wonder what I'm still doing out here at 46," he joked.
Answer: He's competing. After hurting his right wrist unearthing a chunk of limestone at the 2010 Texas Open, and ultimately finishing 132nd on the money list that year, Estes is enjoying a late career revival. He tied for 15th at Pebble, tied for 24th at Hilton Head, tied for fourth at the Valero Texas Open. He shot a final-round 65 to tie for 15th place at the Players, and went 69-65-68 to get into contention at the Greenbrier, but shot a final-round 73 to tie for 38th place.
Estes's career could have been better--he's 0-4 in PGA Tour playoffs. But he's still writing the script, 93rd on the money list with $721,000, two days from making another check at the British Open after crashing yet another major. Less than four years away from the Champions tour, 24 years into his professional career, he's still refining, listening to the tutelage of Flick. Bob Estes is still grinding it out.
(Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images)