The ‘easiest’ path to a PGA Tour start? This week’s event offers one of them
There’s a 15-year-old playing in this week’s PGA Tour event, the Butterfield Bermuda Championship, on the wind-battered Robert Trent Jones Sr. design at Port Royal Golf Course. Perhaps you saw the headlines last month when the talented youngster, Oliver Betschart, who honed his game in Port Royal’s junior ranks, closed with a 68 in the Butterfield’s 54-hole local qualifier to punch his ticket to his first Tour start; when Oliver sets off at 12:25 p.m. local time Thursday with Andy Zhang and Betschart’s fellow Bermudian, Michael Sims, he will become the youngest player to compete on Tour since 2014.
“This has been my goal for the whole year and now it’s finally true and it’s hard to accept it,” Oliver said after advancing.
But the teen wasn’t the only qualifier from that event. Joining him were two other stalwarts of the Bermuda golf scene: amateur Eric West, 39, who won the qualifier by four with a four-under 212, and professional Scott Roy, president of the Bermuda Professional Golfers Association, who tied with Betschart at three over, edging out the fourth-place finishers by a stroke. The trio of qualifiers beat out 19 other Bermudians for the opportunity to play alongside the likes of major winners Adam Scott and Lucas Glover this week.
If outplaying fewer than two dozen competitors — three of whom either withdrew or were disqualified — sounds like a path of minimal resistance to a PGA Tour start, well, that’s because, outside of sponsor’s exemptions, it is. This is not a knock on the qualifiers who posted commendable scores in wet and windy conditions in the final round at Port Royal; it’s merely to note that this week’s Bermuda event offers one of the more unconventional and relatively “easier” routes to a Tour starting time: a qualifier designated only for locals.
It’s an incredible opportunity for the island’s best players, for which they can thank the Bermuda Tourism Authority, which helped found the tournament in 2019.
“When the tourism authority engaged in hosting this event, they really wanted to see opportunities for locals to participate, and they wanted to create a pathway for that to be generated,” Craig Brown, the president of the Bermuda Golf Association, told me by phone the other day. “Working with the Bermuda Professional Golf Association, the Bermuda Golf Association and also with the tournament organizers, the BTA wanted to see and mandated that we get some locals in the event. So we all worked together and came up with this process, and it has grown into what it is now. It’s pretty stable now and a big, big part of our calendar — people look for it to fulfill their dreams.”
That’s not just fluffy marketing speak. After Roy qualified last month, he told the local paper, “My dream was always to play in a PGA Tour event, so I feel really lucky to be able to play in an event like this and represent Bermuda.”
Not just any Bermudian with a set of Pings can try to qualify. To participate in the qualifier, entrants must possess Bermudian status, be a professional in good standing with the BGA and BPGA or an amateur with an up-to-date handicap index not exceeding 1.4. In a country with a population of less than 70,000, those parameters limit the pool of potential entrants to a small group. But to that group, their annual shot at PGA Tour glory is a huge deal.
Brown said the qualifier “captures the imagination of everyone involved,” adding, “Every year the locals — the better amateurs and pros — they’re looking for when this event, when the date gets settled, to be able to start moving their games and their preparations toward that date. For the last four years, I’d say it’s been the most important date on a lot of players’ calendars. It doesn’t get much bigger than playing a PGA Tour event on your home soil in your backyard.”
Only one other Tour event, the Puerto Rico Open, offers a local qualifier, and historically its field has been even smaller than Bermuda’s. Just five Puerto Rican players entered the 2023 Puerto Rico Open local qualifier, with only the top finisher, Robert Calvesbert, advancing after rounds of 76-72-69. A spokesperson for the Puerto Rico Golf Association, which administers the event, said amateur entrants must carry a handicap only of 7 or less and that another small field is expected for the 2024 qualifier.
The goal of the local events is to shine a light on the host country’s finest players and give them access to a high-wattage stage to which they’d unlikely otherwise have. But in terms of competitiveness, these qualifiers are undoubtedly a long way from the Tour’s traditional 18-hole Monday qualifiers. To even earn a spot in the Tour’s Monday qualifying events, most dreamers first must get through an 18-hole pre-qualifier. For the Tour’s Bermuda event, for example, 93 players entered pre-qualifying with 28 advancing. In the actual Monday qualifier — which tend to be high-pressure birdie-fests — 75 players vied for only four spots. The medalist shot 64 while five other players tied for second with 66s and had to play off for the remaining three available spots.
When I asked Brown if the Tour has ever hinted that reserving three places for local qualifiers might be too generous, he said, “There’s been absolute zero pushback from the PGA Tour. They’ve been nothing but supportive both from the PGA Tour perspective and that of the tournament organizers. This event is unique in its configuration, but in that uniqueness, it’s been fully embraced.”
The dream scenario for Brown and the rest of the Bermudian golf community would be a Bermudian making the cut, which has not yet happened in the tournament’s young history. Michael Sims came closest, missing the weekend by two in 2019. (This week, Sims is back in the field as a sponsor’s invite.) The field will be one of the weakest of the Tour season but is still likely to be the most formidable competition the local players will ever face.
“For them,” Brown said, “this is their major championship.”