Twilight had nearly morphed into darkness as Steve Schneiter reluctantly left the 18th green, the last player off Medinah Country Club's No. 3 course in the PGA Championship's second round. It was the symbolic stroke of midnight for most of the nation's top club professionals, those who made the annual pilgrimage to the PGA to proudly tee it up with the world's finest touring professionals. They performed pretty darn well for a bunch of working stiffs, but the harsh reality is that they are not up to this level of competition.
Lanky Bruce Zabriski was the only one of the 25 club professionals competing at Medinah to make the cut—and the first club pro in three years to accomplish that feat. Zabriski, 42, the head pro at Donald Trump's new club at West Palm Beach, Fla., and the four-time national club pro player of the year, finished 68th after an opening-round 70. Schneiter and Bob Ford, the pro at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, were next best, missing the cut by two strokes, a small margin when you also consider the vast differences in the tracks that they and the millionaire Tour pros are accustomed to playing. "We don't have golf courses in Utah that compare to this," said Schneiter, who works at his family's executive course and driving range in Sandy, Utah. He looked up at trees towering 100 feet or more over Medinah's 18th green and added, "We don't have a tree this high in the state of Utah."
For the club pros, who earn their berths in the PGA Championship by virtue of their play in the Club Pro Championship, which this year was held at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., in late June, the adjustment is simply too great. "It's like an exam," said Atlanta-area pro Stephen Keppler. "You qualify, and you've got a month to prepare. It's a great experience, but it's tough coming into a championship course. I've made it three times and never felt comfortable with my game when I got here."
Wayne DeFrancesco, a teaching pro in Pikesville, Md., failed to make the cut at Medinah, shooting 78-76, but was the only club pro to do so in 1995 at Riviera. "It's the greatest thing on my resume," said DeFrancesco. "If somebody wants to know whether I can play, all they have to know is I beat half the field in a major championship and played all four rounds. To make the PGA cut is very, very big."
For many club pros, teeing it up in the PGA Championship is like vying for an Oscar—the nomination is award enough. Working for a living doesn't leave enough time to hone a competitive edge, but it does provide a perspective most Tour pros don't have. Consider 43-year-old Ron Stelten, who grew up caddying at Hazeltine National in Chaska, Minn., and later chased his pro dream on the European tour for eight years, winning twice in Switzerland. He once lived in a friend's basement in Frankfurt, another time stayed at an apartment near Paris, still another time boarded at a luxury hotel in Monte Carlo because the casino manager was a golf fanatic who loved Stelten's tales of the tour. "I was way too poor to actually be living there," Stelten says.
Stelten left the European tour in mid-season in 1992 so that he and his wife, Robin, could go to Peru to adopt a baby, a daughter they named Andrea. The trip was an ordeal. Their flight to Lima was one of the last to leave Miami's airport before Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida. The adoption procedure, which should have taken a few weeks, took six months. A bombing campaign and attempted revolution by the terrorist group Shining Path all but stopped the wheels of bureaucracy, preventing the Steltens from leaving with their daughter. "It was 'one more week, one more week, one more week,' for six months," Stelten said. "The bureaucrats moved slowly because they didn't know who would win this power struggle and didn't want to be on the wrong side. Andrea was a pawn in a political struggle."
The family finally made it to the States, and Stelten started playing the Nike tour, only to stop a few months later when his wife lost ground in her long battle with manic depression. She subsequently took her own life. "Life is going to hit all of us hard at some point," he said. "I had mine. Those were dark days for a while."
A professional golfer's lifestyle didn't fit with being a devoted single parent. For the next few years Stelten took jobs when he could, often working as a golf host—a forecaddie, really—at Bighorn Golf Club in the Palm Desert area for $100 a round. "If I couldn't get Andrea to school or pick her up, I didn't work," Stelten said. "I just tightened my belt as much as I could." Stelten's engaging personality and European tour experience made him a hit as a golf host. Most groups he went out with preferred listening to his stories or watching him hit shots to having him hunt for their golf balls in the desert. That led to his current gig as a corporate outing organizer-entertainer. He spends summers in Taos, N.Mex., winters in Palm Springs. You want an outing, he does the rest: books the course, gives instruction, plays along, tells stories, basically works the room.
Stelten is about to be a family man once again. His new fianc�e, Pamela, has two children, 10 and 8, to go with Andrea, now seven. He still dreams. He hopes to try this fall's PGA Tour qualifier again. At Medinah, however, he found the rough far too often and shot 77-79 to miss the cut.
Except for the sweet-swinging Zabriski, the club pros left Chicago disappointed. Schneiter headed back to work on Monday in Utah to mow fairways and change cups. DeFrancesco returned to Maryland to give lessons and get ready to work for Zabriski as a teaching pro at Trump's club this winter. Keppler, who joined Ernie Els and Tom Watson for a memorable day of practice last week, was due back at Summit Chase Country Club in suburban Atlanta. His big regret about his week in Chicago was that he couldn't score tickets for a taping of the Jerry Springer Show. Minnesota pro Scott Spence, whose father died five months ago, carried his dad's ashes in a film canister in his bag; after missing the cut, he planned to travel to the Leatherstocking Golf Course in Coopers-town, N.Y., to sprinkle the ashes on the par-5 18th, his dad's favorite hole. "It's respect. He's part of me," said Spence, 43, of Burl Oaks Country Club, who envisions being memorialized at the same hole. "My boys can dump me right there, too...but hopefully, not too soon."