Considering the long road he traveled and the setbacks that followed, it’s hard to imagine anyone at this week’s Sony Open at Waialae Country Club who appreciates this island paradise more than Chris Thompson. He could have swum to Hawaii in less time than it took him to reach the PGA Tour.
If there is a mini-tour, chances are he has played it.
Most amazing about Thompson is not that it took him 19 years to get there, but that he never quit trying, even as the odds kept shrinking with age.
And that made it all the more rewarding.
“Everybody says it’s good,” he said. “And then when you get there, it’s even better.”
Thompson is 42, a Kansas graduate with two children, whose wife kept encouraging him to stick it out even when the results and the bank account would have suggested otherwise.
Patience paid off late last summer when he tied for third, tied for fourth and finished third in successive weeks on the Web.com Tour, getting him into the top 25 on the money list to earn a PGA Tour card.
“It was some relief, but obviously a lot of joy,” Thompson said. “I’ve been trying for a long time to do this. I’m 42. I wasn’t going to get a better opportunity than I had toward the end of last year. Those are some pretty stressful rounds … but they were important rounds. If you want to do this for a living, it’s better to play those important rounds. When you can play well in those rounds that matter the most, that’s the most gratifying.”
It’s even more gratifying for a guy who spent the better part of decade driving to mini-tour events in Florida and the Carolinas, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana, and as far west as Arizona. There were annual trips to Q-school and occasional trips to PGA Tour events for Monday qualifiers.
Thompson was 37 when he finally qualified for his first PGA Tour event at the Byron Nelson Championship in 2014, his first taste of the good life. Two weeks later, he qualified for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 and played a practice round with Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler.
And then it was back to the grind.
That’s all Thompson ever knew.
One moment that stands out was his failed attempt at qualifying for the 2002 U.S. Open. He made it through local qualifying and was preparing for a summer on the Golden Bear Tour in Florida when he drove with Ryan Vermeer to Old Memorial in Tampa, Florida, for the final stage of qualifying.
“We took off in Kansas, drove as far as we could, slept in a hotel, and got up and drove to Tampa the next afternoon,” Thompson said. “It was maybe 20 hours in the car. We get to the course and I mean, we’re just peeling ourselves out of the car. Can’t move. Get the clubs and we’re going to the range. But we’re ready to walk across this lawn in front of the clubhouse and this security guy comes up and says, ‘Guys, can you hold up for a minute or two?’
“All of a sudden, you can hear the propellers,” he said. “That’s Greg Norman. He’s coming in to land his chopper.”
Norman qualified. Thompson missed by seven shots and was back on the road.
He is not the oldest rookie in PGA Tour history. Allen Doyle was 47 his first year on the PGA Tour, but he didn’t turn pro until the year before. Jim Rutledge of Canada also was 47 as a PGA Tour rookie, though he had spent most of his career on the Asian Tour.
But it’s an example of determination and will, and it starts with a family that’s willing to sacrifice the time away with so little guaranteed in return. That’s what Thompson had going for him, even in the leanest of years when doubts began to outweigh hope.
“There were some years where you have to sit back and reflect and you have to rely on the people that you trust and make the best decision that you can,” he said. “I’m not saying I made the right decision. Ended up being right. You try to figure it out as you go. My wife and I assessed it at the end of every year. Do we shut it down and do something else or do we keep going? She’s always leaned on the side of keep going.
“I was probably that way, too,” he added. “But there were a couple years we had to make a tough decision. I’m glad we stuck it out. This is pretty cool for me.”
If getting to the PGA Tour was hard, it doesn’t figure to get any easier.
His rookie orientation included players like Cameron Champ and Sam Burns, who might be next in line to join a burgeoning generation of young power players.
“It’s a profession that not many good players get out of, but there (are) always good players getting into it,” he said. “It does get harder.”
That doesn’t intimidate him. It makes him appreciate his journey even more.