PGA Championship 2019: Why two New York club pros could be dangerous at Bethpage Black

May 14, 2019

For Rob Labritz, the road to this year’s PGA Championship at Bethpage Black began more than six years ago, when he first got wind that the storied Long Island venue would play host to both the 2019 PGA Championship and the 2024 Ryder Cup.

Labritz is the director of golf at GlenArbor, in Westchester County, New York, about 60 miles north of Bethpage State Park. For him and many of his New York club-pro brethren, the chance to play a PGA on their home turf was a dream, if a supremely difficult one to realize.

For Met Section pros, the qualifying process began at last year’s Metropolitan Professional Championship, which was played in July at Fairview Country Club in Greenwich, Conn.; the top 14 players would earn a berth into the national PGA Professional Championship, which would be played the following year in the weeks preceding the PGA Championship.

Labritz advanced, tying for 6th.

On April 28, more than 300 qualifiers from around the country converged at Belfair in Bluffton, S.C. for the main event. Only 20 of those players would earn a spot in the PGA Championship. Labritz was determined to be among them. So determined, in fact, that in addition to hitting balls for hours each day in his indoor/outdoor facility at GlenArbor, he traveled to Florida every couple of weeks during the long New York winter to keep his game sharp on actual grass.

Then it was time to play.

“I had a game plan going into Belfair, which was the most boring game plan I ever put together for getting through because I wanted to get to Bethpage so much,” Labritz told me. “It was to hit the center of every green. And just do my due diligence in putting. I practiced putting from 24 to 64 feet all week. I didn’t hit any golf balls, just chipped and putted. As you get older, you get wiser. It’s not just about hitting golf shots at flags. It’s about working your way around the golf course, taking the opportunities when you can. And actually, maybe leaving some opportunities. It just depends on what the golf course is going to give you.”

Club pro Rob Labritz is playing in his sixth PGA Championship this week.
Getty Images

Labritz’s plan worked. He finished T-8, even par through four rounds. At 47, he was going to Bethpage to make his sixth career start in a PGA Championship. Danny Balin, the head pro at Fresh Meadow CC on Long Island and Labritz’s longtime Met Area rival, finished runner-up. In all, five Met Section qualifiers will tee it up at Bethpage this week.

There will always be detractors who believe that the inclusion of club pros in the PGA Championship dilutes the field, that there are other Tour players more deserving of the spots. But for Labritz and the four other Met Section pros at Bethpage this week, this year’s PGA represents an unprecedented opportunity: the chance to compete on one of the game’s biggest stages, on a course they know better than anyone else in the field, and likely the best chance they’ll ever have to make the cut — and who knows, maybe even contend.

Sounds crazy? Consider this: The New York State Open is played at Bethpage Black every year. Labritz has claimed the title three times since 2008. Balin has won it twice. There’s no question that the two pros have more competitive experience on the course than anyone else in the field.

Danny Balin has plenty of competitive experience at Bethpage Black, having won two New York State Opens there in 2012 and 2013.
Courtesy of the PGA of America

“I’ve played 69 tournament rounds there,” Labritz says. “Three New York State Opens, I was 10 under through 36 holes. I tied Ricky Barnes’ scoring record for 36 holes there at the State Open one year. So I know I can go low. I don’t want to be the overconfident PGA professional, but I want to go in saying that I know where my golf game stands. I can play with anybody. I can shoot four 68s in a row. I can shoot four 65s in a row. I’ve done that. And [I’m] going to go to Bethpage and prepare myself to the Nth degree and try to position myself on that golf course to have a great time in this PGA Championship. I’ve just never been so relaxed, going into this. I just feel comfortable.”

Balin also acknowledges the benefits of playing on such a familiar track.

“Usually, I go into this not knowing the golf course,” he says. “So practice rounds are more like homework trying to figure out where to go, what to do, how the course plays, how the condition and the change throughout the week of the golf course, how that affects your play. Going in [to Bethpage], I don’t really have to do all that homework. I’m comfortable out there. I’ve known the golf course. I’ve been playing it for the last 15 years. I’ve had success on the golf course. I really know where to hit it off the tee, the different lines to take. And I’m very comfortable around the greens.”

Matt Dobyns is a Long Island club pro who has competed in five PGAs. He was gutted to lose a playoff at the PGA Professional Championship for the final spot in this year’s field, but feels bullish about the opportunity at hand for Labritz and Balin.

“I wouldn’t be surprised even a little bit if Rob or Danny did really well there,” he said. “So many of the things that make playing in a major hard won’t be there for these guys. They’re going to be in their own beds. They’re going to be at a course they’re super familiar with. They’re not going to be taken by surprise of anything that goes on because it plays hard all the time. So if it was ever going to happen where a club pro could come in and do well, you’ve got to like the odds of it happening this year.”

Only seven club pros have made the cut at a PGA Championship in the last 10 years. Labritz was one of them, at Whistling Straits in 2010. The best-ever finish by a club pro was T-11, back in 1986. Since 2009, the top club-pro finish was a T-42.

Will that change this week? Keep an eye on Labritz and Balin.

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