CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Stop me if you've heard this one: a hard-working greenkeeper spends his days on a mower while dreaming of the PGA Tour.
Time's up. That's Carl Spackler as played by Bill Murray in Caddyshack. But it's also a reasonable depiction of Bryan Bigley's current career — a greenkeeper and mini-tour player who Monday-qualified his way into the field this week at Quail Hollow for the second year in a row. Thursday was both his second career start at Quail Hollow and second start on the PGA Tour.
Carl Spackler he is not, but Bigley is a guy most of us could easily get behind: he's a soft-spoken 27-year-old from Schenectady, N.Y., the middle child of three and the son of a golf-course superintendent. He doesn't wear a golf glove, which is pretty old-school, but the rest of his game is decidedly new-school. He's 6-foot-5, thinner than a 3-iron, and hunches over the ball a little in his stance, like a lot of tall guys do. His swing isn't artistic, but it's powerful. He was the best player on his college team at Siena University, and after graduating in 2007 he wanted to keep chasing his dream of playing the PGA Tour. He decided his best shot would be to move to North Carolina.
"I don't know what I'd do if I didn't play golf, to be honest," he said.
Well, there's one other thing he's currently doing: Bigley is on the grounds crew at Rain Tree Country Club in Charlotte, about a 20-minute drive from Quail Hollow. He's worked there for five years. When Bigley is not on the clock, he gets to play golf, but the workload is no joke. Mowing greens. Raking bunkers. Manual labor.
"I go in at 6:30 in the morning, and I mow greens until 10:30, 11 o'clock," he said. "It's not really a side job. Golf is the side job."
Perhaps the best thing about being on the grounds crew, other than having a golf course for an office, is the flexibility to play mini-tours and attempt to qualify for the PGA Tour events on Mondays. Bigley teed it up in five out of the six weeks leading up to his Wells Fargo qualifier, which he credits for a sharpened game that produced a six-under 64 at Carolina Golf Club, good for both medalist honors and a spot in the Quail Hollow field. But to pay the bills, he did squeeze in some time on the mower.
"I worked Sunday morning, and then I qualified for Quail Hollow on Monday," he said with a laugh.
Bigley has nine mini-tour victories in his pro career, which began in 2008. This season he's been kicking around on the eGolf Tour, a circuit that stays in the Charlotte area. His best finish this year came three weeks ago when he tied for 21st and earned $1,934.57.
"You're not going to make money out there unless you finish in the top 10, but it's a good place to tune your game up," he said before adding, "I don't want to be like some of the other guys, just grinding it and saying, 'It's just another week.' You almost lose touch with reality.
"I'm going to have fun and enjoy myself."
Bigley admitted there was a time in late 2009 and early 2010 when his enjoyment waned and he began burning out on the game. He pulled out of Q-school before the opening round ("couldn't even look at a club"). But he never lost the support of his family, friends and girlfriend of three years, Brooke Barrows, and the time away from his clubs proved invigorating. A renewed commitment to practice paid off last year when he successfully Monday-qualified for Quail Hollow and made his first PGA Tour start.
"It just sort of kicked things off for me again," he said.
Last year, Bigley missed the cut by 10 shots, but he felt more comfortable entering the opening round on Thursday. He picked up an experienced caddie, Todd Montoya, who's looped for Billy Mayfair and Ryuji Imada, and worked Quail Hollow numerous times. Bigley also has a savvy coach, Randy Joyner, who trains several Nationwide players. No longer a wide-eyed PGA Tour novice, this week Bigley was relaxed and quietly confident.
Unfortunately not all fairy tales have happy endings. Bigley was paired with Billy Hurley III and Kyle Thompson in the final group of the day, and his round started well. Through 14 holes Bigley was birdie-less, but hanging in at 3-over. The wheels started coming off on the par-5 fifth hole, Bigley's 14th, where he missed a 13-footer for birdie and hung his head a bit. It got worse when he missed a putt inside three feet for par at the sixth. Then Bigley short-circuited — all golfers have been there — and he made two more double bogeys to finish with an eight-over 80. After 18 holes, he's in 155th place out of 155 competitors.
Was he crushed? Devastated? Hardly. Instead, he focused on what he can take away from the experience of competing against PGA Tour pros.
"I learned they have good short games," he said. "Billy Hurley really didn't play well, but around the greens he was unbelievable."
Joyner, his coach, was also upbeat; he said the pressure Bigley experienced on Thursday will help him in future events.
"He doesn't have the short game yet that a lot of these other players do, but he's only playing half the time," Joyner said. "He'll come off this and the U.S. Open qualifier will feel easy for him."
After it was all over, Bigley could still have a laugh about the shirt he had chosen for his big day — an electric green number that Rickie Fowler might consider over-the-top.
"I knew I was in the last group, so if it got dark, at least someone would find me," he said with a smile.
Bigley added that he'll be giving it his best again in the second round on Friday.
"I'm just going to grind hard until the last putt goes in," he said.
It doesn't sound like a fairy-tale ending, but maybe with this story, the best is still to come.