LEMONT, Ill. (AP) — Living off fast food and pocket change as you chase a dream from one small tour stop to another is easy – romantic, even – when you’re young and have no responsibilities.
At 39, with one small child and another on the way, Tom Gillis wasn’t sure he had it in him again.
“We went back to Michigan and spoke with a few people about work, and times were tough there. There wasn’t a lot of opportunities,” he said Wednesday. “Snow and three months in the cold weather, I found this isn’t so bad.”
Three years after nearly quitting, the 42-year-old Gillis is enjoying a resurgence that seems more suited for Hollywood than the PGA Tour. The guy who couldn’t keep his card still has a shot at a $10 million payoff along with Tiger, Phil and the rest of the game’s biggest names.
Gillis is at this week’s BMW Championship thanks to a fifth-place finish at the Deutsche Bank Championship, his third top 10 of the season. He has earned $1.07 million this year – more than his career earnings on the PGA Tour coming into the season.
“I thought I was going to make a comeback,” he said, “but do you really know how far you’re going to get? Are you going to get this far?”
Gillis turned pro after college, working his way up on the satellite and European tours before earning his card in 2003. He missed the 2004 season because of a broken wrist, but opened 2005 with a tie for 11th at the Buick Invitational. His play the next few months wasn’t spectacular, but it was steady enough.
Then he and his wife found out they were expecting their first child.
“It froze me up a little bit,” Gillis said.
After tying for 17th at the Zurich Classic the first week of May, he made just five cuts the rest of the year. Playing on the Nationwide Tour the next season, his heart wasn’t in his game. He made only six cuts; three years after earning more than $400,000, he made less than $45,000.
The next year wasn’t any better.
“I guess I never really welcomed the opportunity to get back out here,” Gillis said. “I never really accepted that I was there after playing five years in Europe. It felt like a step down to me, and I lost my status.”
After that winter of shivering – and soul searching – in Michigan, Gillis decided to give golf one more try. He moved to Florida full-time, began working with a new coach and changed his technique so he was no longer digging so deep into the dirt, which had caused repeated hand injuries. He also rethought the way he approached the game mentally.
By last year, Gillis was playing better than ever. He finished in the top 10 in eight of his 15 starts on the Nationwide Tour (he missed just two cuts all year), and got his first career victory at the Nationwide Tour Players Cup.
Best of all, he finished fifth on the money list, earning his way back onto the PGA Tour.
Gillis showed flashes of what he could do at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, shooting 69 or better in all four rounds on his way to a tie for eighth. He was in line for a strong finish at Quail Hollow until the last two holes (he still tied for 17th) and followed it with a top 10 at the Texas Open.
A missed cut at The Barclays put his spot in the FedEx Cup race in jeopardy, but a 65-65 finish in Boston bumped him up to 48th in the standings, more than enough to get him to Chicago.
The top 30 after the BMW advance to the Tour Championship, which will be played in two weeks in Atlanta.
It’s a great story, but one Gillis hopes isn’t finished just yet.
“I still feel like I’ve got further to go,” he said. “I know for a fact and I believe in my heart I can win out here.”