50-year-old Graham Banister earned a qualifying card on the PGA Champions Tour in a national qualifying tournament in November 2006. This means at most Champions Tour events during 2007 he was eligible to play in a single qualifying round, usually against 40 or 50 other pros, for one of eight or nine spots in the real thing: a three- or four-day Champions Tour tournament with a multimillion-dollar purse. In his tenth try, he played his way into a weekend tournament at the Principal Charity Classic in Des Moines, IA, and had a wonderful, memory-filled weekend…his first playing as a bona fide touring pro. He finished far down the pack, winning approximately $4,000 (enough to more or less cover at least that one week’s expenses), but finished with a sharp 67 on a seven-birdie Sunday, playing before a gallery of hundreds who were following his playing partner and fan favorite, Fuzzy Zoeller.
June 2007 — What an experience. I had a great time in Des Moines. That Sunday was such an exciting day. It’s been my best experience in a lifetime of golf. Playing in the U.S. Amateur at Merion was special, too, but this was, I think, even better.
It’s hard to put into words what it felt like. I tried to explain it to my kids. You know that movie The Rookie, with Dennis Quaid playing a pitcher who makes it to the major leagues after being out of baseball? When he went out on that field, in a major-league stadium, for the first time and looked around…that feeling, that’s what it felt like for me. You never really think you’re going to get there, and then you do.
I had become a standing joke among the qualifying guys, because I had been playing so well but couldn’t seem to get in. “Whatever Graham shoots, if you shoot one better, you’ll get in.” It would be one thing if I was shooting 76, 77, but mostly I was shooting 68, 69, 70 and coming up just short. In seven of nine tries, I missed by one shot. It was tough to stay positive. You know, then the temptation is to start trying too hard. And besides the pressure on yourself, which is enough, there’s a lot of pressure from the hundreds of people who are supporting you—other guys on the tour, my friends, family, people at work, I’ve got lots of people back in Australia rooting for me.
So it was good to get in. After qualifying, there was a lot of racing around. You have to register, make arrangements, change travel plans, find a place to stay—the tour people were good about helping me with all of that. I think they found me the last room in the tournament hotel. And they give you a courtesy car—very nice. Qualifying was on Tuesday. Then I played in the pro-am on Wednesday, and then they had an opening at the last minute, so I played again on Thursday. Mostly with guys from Principal Financial and Wells Fargo, the tournament sponsors (Wells Fargo owns Principal, which is based in Des Moines). But one day I played with a guy named Kyle Petty. Now I live in North Carolina, but I don’t follow NASCAR. I didn’t know who this guy was. And we were going around the course and having fun, and everybody was coming up to him and wanting their picture taken with him, and getting him to sign autographs and so on. So finally on about the fifth hole, I go over to him and say, “Are you like, famous?” And he shrugs and says, well, my father is pretty famous. And so I put it together then. Now each group in a pro-am has one pro and four amateurs, and this was my first experience as the pro, so I said to Kyle, “Listen, I’m the pro in this group, so I’m supposed to be the one signing autographs and getting the star treatment.” And that was good for a laugh. And you can bet my mates back in North Carolina have been chuckling at my expense for not recognizing a state hero.
I used those pro-am days to go around and meet a lot of the people, to shake hands with the marshals and other volunteers, because I know what’s it like to be in their shoes and I know how hard they work. And they were all very supportive during the week. Also, a few very good amateur golfers and old friends from playing in the big amateur tournaments happen to live in Des Moines, so they came out and watched me play on the weekend, and that was great.
I’ll tell you what’s interesting. People are really invested in this with me. Since the tournament, I’ve received lots of emails and phone calls. People congratulating me, people who are excited about my seven birdies or whatever. You can’t hide on the Internet. People can follow along in real time, watching you play hole by hole. They see that you had a birdie on that hole, and then they wince when you double-bogey this one. It adds to the pressure, but it’s good to have all of that support, too.