He’s 61. He quit for 20 years. And he’s playing the PGA Championship

Tracy Phillips

Tracy Phillips on Wednesday outside the clubhouse at Valhalla Golf Club.

John Sodaro

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — How would you describe golf?

Of all the questions submitted this week here at the PGA Championship — can Koepka PGA-repeat, can Scheffler major-repeat, can McIlroy Valhalla-repeat and so on and so on — the answer here may be the most … curious? Anticipated? Who can tell? It was asked of Tracy Phillips late Wednesday afternoon, on a couple of chairs outside of the Valhalla Golf Club clubhouse, though you wonder if it may lead to another question. 

How many expletives can you use here?

We’ll try to keep it clean, though how we arrived here is anything but. It’s untidy.

But isn’t that golf? The un-linearness of it is part of its allure. The ups and downs, the hooks and slices, the birdies and the chunks. If it were straightforward, we wouldn’t be here. Instead, it teases. It winks at you, then rolls its eyes, on repeat. Punishing? Maybe. Rewarding. Undeniably. 

In Phillips’ case, he was all-everything as a kid. Top ranked in the country. A winner of a PGA junior championship. A scholarship to Oklahoma State. He played with the Pokes in Stillwater. 

But he stopped. Driver yips, the aftermath of an injury. Couldn’t hit earth from a spaceship. 

But he stayed with the game, adjacently. Phillips taught it. He’s at Cedar Ridge Country Club now in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, near Tulsa. He caddied too. Didn’t touch a club, though. 

For 20 years.

Two. Zero. 

But friends convinced him to. Some friends, right? Thank goodness, though. Something clicked again. Eventually, he played in events. Even won some. He entered this year’s PGA Professional Championship. He tied for eighth. What?! That dropped him into this week’s PGA, his first-ever appearance in a major championship.  

But he’s 61. 

Six. One. 

Wait. Really? He’s finally made it — but now? Brooks and Rory and the boys are mostly half his age. And bomb it nearly twice as far.  

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But here he is. On Thursday, at four minutes before 1 in the afternoon, off Valhalla GC’s first tee, beside 23-year-old Keita Nakajima and 31-year-old Denny McCarthy, there’ll be Tracy Phillips. 

How would he describe golf?

Phillips took a deep breath at first. 

After all, there are a few other questions. 

This is deeper, but do you think your story inspires? Where it’s you had it, then something happened, but you stayed with it and it clicked and it worked and where we’re at now. 

“Yeah. Yeah, I hope so,” Phillips said. “You think about it, what other sport can a person play at 61 years old and play in one of the largest events ever imaginable. There’s not another sport you can actually do that in. And let alone play in the PGA of America, our major championship. Hopefully there’s some inspiration that people get out of it. If anything, it says you can play this game at a pretty old age. … 

“The giving up for 20 years and stuff like that, if anyone had an injury or something like that, I’d say don’t wait 20 years. Maybe make it a little bit quicker than that. But I’m very blessed with the situation I’ve been put in.”

When you were a junior, what was the thought of how far things could go?

PGA Championships. Plural. Multiple Masters. Open Championships and U.S. Opens. And wins. 

“Yeah, at that point in time, if you were going to ask me, hey, are you going to play on the Tour one of these days, I would tell you absolutely I was going to be on the Tour,” Phillips said. “But you know, things happen for a reason.”

I imagine you’ve told and retold that you stopped the game, but if you don’t mind, could you walk me through that. Why? And maybe more specifically, how? You grew up with the game. Your dad was a teaching professional, as well. And then — done.

With clarity, Phillips retold this.

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Stung his back after he fatted a shot on the range. Was diagnosed with a herniated disc. Was shelved for eight months. Said he lost his natural golf swing. Rebuilt it to feature additional lag.  But started sliding too laterally with his hips. And that was that. He said he couldn’t rely on his short game — because a short game is worthless when your O.B. 

Do you remember that exact moment? 

“I think I was playing in a pro-am in Wyoming,” Phillips said. “And the first hole was a par-5 and there was an in-course out of bounds to the right and there was an out-of-bounds pasture to the left. I stepped up and proceeded to hit a driver on the range, hit a driver out of bounds left and then finally just hit a 7-iron down the fairway just to get it in. I think at that time, it was just like, it was obvious — I was just toast. And so the hardest part was back at one time, you were a really, really good player. And to go through that process of not being able to find that swing or find that magic, I just got tired of it.” 

You stopped playing — but you stayed with it. I don’t know if I could do that. You mention the love of the game, and teaching — to teach someone success can be equally as rewarding as succeeding yourself. How — how did you do that?

Easily, he said. He bled divots. His dad was also the head pro at Cedar Ridge for 40 years. His mom gave birth to Tracy hours after a tournament. 

“So there was a good chance I was going to be on the golf course,” Phillips said. “Yeah, obviously I wasn’t going to go sell cars, I wasn’t going to do something else. I was always going to be around golf some way or another.”

So then the other layer to this story is you coming back after those 20 years. 


And I read that your friends talked to you into it. 


You stumbled upon an online lesson from George Gankas.


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Walk me through that if you could and that first ball back.

“Well, a good friend of mine, Vince Bizik, he called me up and said, hey, why don’t you just come out and play with us,” Phillips said. “I got a couple of other guys I’d like for you to meet. Let’s go play on Monday.”

How many times were asked to play before that?

“Ummmm, not a lot. Yeah, not a lot. Yeah, I mean as a golf pro, you’re busy all the time.”

Sure, sure. 

“But anyway, Vince calls me up and says, hey, let’s get you out and we’ll go out and have some fun. So I started playing with the guys, a hit-and-giggle-type deal, gradually just got better, got more confident, started playing in some section events, started doing decently well in the section events, just getting more confidence and played and qualified for the national club pro a couple years. Never did any good — I think I missed more cuts than I certainly made, and it was really just in the last probably five years that I stumbled upon a video of George Gankas, just about how the legs work in the golf swing, what he thought the legs should do in the golf swing. And started working on that. Being a slider and getting too lateral just is what put me under, and then working more rotational and things like that, it just kind of clicked for me. So pretty much ever since then, I’ve been driving the ball really well. 

“The very thing that took me out of the game for 20 years is kind of my strong suit. …

“And I worked with a guy who helped me mentally, Billy Ray Young. He doesn’t call himself a sports psychologist, but he certainly helped me a lot in terms of bringing back kind of the old me, the 15-, 16-year-old that was pretty confident with himself inside.” 

When you tied for eighth a few weeks back to get here, when that was settled and the leaderboard was right and you knew you were in, what was your first reaction?


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There’d been about a 25-minute to settle everything. Eventually Phillips said he got a piece of paper. 

It said, ‘Welcome to the PGA Championship.’

You have a wife and a daughter. Were they out there? 

“They weren’t,” Phillips said. “Sam was just finishing up her sophomore year at OU and my wife, Suzie, actually, I was kind of in hot water because I missed her — well, I won’t say what number — but I missed her birthday. She was actually off in Kansas City with a good friend of hers celebrating her birthday. So we were kind of going different directions at the time, but, no, I have an unbelievable support system.”

What was the phone call like when you said, I am going to Valhalla for the PGA Championship.

“Well, my wife, Suzie, was kind of watching the computer the whole time. What was funny, though, was after I had finished, after I did the interview with Golf Channel, I had to go to the PGA headquarters and work with Corebridge to get all the information and the videos and stuff. I didn’t actually get to talk to Suzie for, gosh, probably an hour or so after I’d finished. So the first thing she said was, ‘What in the world are you waiting to give me a call.’”   

What’s the best week for you this week?

“Um, I’m just going to go out there and have some fun,” Phillips said. “I want to commit to every single shot. I want to be in the moment mentally. Like I said, it’s going to be a very difficult golf course because just the clubs that I’m hitting in, second shots — the first day I counted up, I hit eight iron shots into 18 holes. That means the rest of the 10 holes, I hit woods or hybrid woods into it. 

“So that being said, I got to drive the ball good.”

There’s maybe some irony there. 

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I have one more deeper question. After everything, how would you describe golf?

“Very humbling game,” Phillips said. 

“Very hard game. 

“It’s a very satisfying game. … 

“These guys I’m playing with are so good. It’s scary how good they are. So I’m just soaking that in terms of watching how they do it, I play with Denny McCarthy tomorrow. I hear he’s a great putter. I’m probably going to watch him roll a bunch of putts in so I’m just going to go out and have some fun.”

What would they learn from you?


Nick Piastowski

Nick Piastowski

Golf.com Editor

Nick Piastowski is a Senior Editor at Golf.com and Golf Magazine. In his role, he is responsible for editing, writing and developing stories across the golf space. And when he’s not writing about ways to hit the golf ball farther and straighter, the Milwaukee native is probably playing the game, hitting the ball left, right and short, and drinking a cold beer to wash away his score. You can reach out to him about any of these topics — his stories, his game or his beers — at nick.piastowski@golf.com.

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