'Late bloomer' Tom Gillis will try to crash Rory McIlroy's No. 1 coronation

‘Late bloomer’ Tom Gillis will try to crash Rory McIlroy’s No. 1 coronation

Journeyman Tom Gillis will be in the final group Sunday.
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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Plenty has and will be written about Rory McIlroy and Harris English, a couple of 22-year-old stars who seem to have a license to print money for the next couple of decades, at least.

But who is Tom Gillis? He shot a third-round 69 and isn’t going away. He goes into the final round of the Honda Classic at PGA National tied for second with English (66), and just two shots behind McIlroy (66). The three will play together in the final round at 10:30 a.m. Eastern on Sunday. (Tee times were moved up because the forecast is for wind and rain.)

“I’m your prototypical journeyman,” Gillis said the other day.

Well, yes and no.

In his 22 years as a pro, Gillis, 43, has played in 26 countries. He did a five-year stint on the European tour, during which time he befriended Seve Ballesteros. They were paired together at the 1998 Portuguese Open, after which Ballesteros and Gillis occasionally worked together on their short games.

“He treated me pretty good,” said Gillis, who lives in nearby Jupiter. He made two birdies and one bogey on a blustery Saturday afternoon.

The tutelage from Seve notwithstanding, Gillis’s career has included a few unusually hard knocks — character-builders that Rory and the others haven’t had. At the 1994 Jamaican Open, there was no locker room, and when Gillis went to retrieve his sneakers at the end of the day, he realized his caddie had stolen them out of his golf bag. Putting too well to fire the guy, Gillis wound up winning.

“He lives in the U.S. now, and he actually caddies at one of the local clubs, and he's caddied for me a couple of times,” Gillis said. “We are pretty good friends. It was just — he was from Kingston and it was a very tough area, and it was more of a survival thing. I think at the time, I really didn't understand it. I was probably, I don't know, 24, 25. I was a little bitter about it for a while, but now I look back, and the guy had to do it. He needed them worse than I needed them.”

Gillis has had three operations on his left wrist. He’s had back issues. After dropping off the Tour at the end of 2005, he missed 17 cuts in 23 starts on the Nationwide Tour in 2006, a season in which his earnings dipped to just $44,532. He was 38 and thought about quitting the game, but he couldn’t imagine what else he’d do.

He clawed his way back and earned a career-best $1.2 million in 2010. Still, before Friday, when he was the 36-hole co-leader with Justin Rose, he’d never led at the halfway mark. His best finish on Tour: a third at Pebble last year.

“I’m a late bloomer,” Gillis said. “But that's the great thing about this game is you keep yourself somewhat in condition, you can go quite a while.”

Unlike McIlroy, who is coming off a second-place finish at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, Gillis gave no indication that he would play well this week. He took two and a half months off after Bay Hill to cope with back pain last year. He’s coming off a West Coast swing in which he missed his first three cuts, tied for 40th at Pebble Beach, and withdrew from the Northern Trust Open. He’s in his first week with a new caddie, Paul Jungman. Gillis calls him Pablo.

“Most of the time when he’s won, he’s not trying as hard,” said Jeff Leishman, Gillis’s swing coach, who teaches at Dye Preserve and with his wife runs Jupiter Dunes, a par-3 course. “He just tries so hard. He’d done well on the West Coast before, and it just didn’t happen for him this year.”

The turning point was Tuesday. In the morning, Gillis and Leishman met with Dr. Bob Rotella for close to an hour. Gillis had met Rotella years before, but the message this time — to relax a little, despite his poor start to the season and this being his hometown tournament — was one he needed to hear.

“I live three or four miles away,” Gillis said, “and I think I just put a little too much pressure on myself, kind of like how I used to do up at the Buick Open up there in Flint.” (Gillis lives in Lake Orion, Mich., for three months a year.)

Later Tuesday, Gillis was playing a practice round game called No Bogey with friends George McNeill and Carl Pettersson. The rules: If you make it all 18 holes without making a bogey, the other guys owe you $50 apiece.

Gillis started out hitting his ball all over the Champion Course, but he kept getting up and down for pars. In his struggle to find a fix on the West Coast, he had abandoned his usual graphite shafts — they’re easier on his wrists — for steel. The launch monitor told him it was the right call, but they felt terrible, and after failing to hit a green in regulation in his first eight holes Tuesday, he’d finally had enough.

“Go get the other ones,” he told Leishman. “I can’t do it anymore.”

His old graphite-shafted irons were liberated from the trunk of his car, and Gillis made a handful of birdies on the back nine, didn’t make a bogey, and collected $50 apiece from his pals. Whether that will translate to a victory Sunday remains to be seen. Gillis knows he’s the underdog, and with McIlroy eying the No. 1 ranking if he wins, Gillis won’t be much of a crowd favorite, either.

“Well, I think it's going to be fun,” he said. “Two 22-year-olds and a 43-year-old; hopefully they don't walk too fast and I can catch up to them.”


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