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Albany's Skinner tees off in third career major today

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Three weeks ago, Albany golf pro Sonny Skinner was reporting hole-in-ones and giving lessons out at River Pointe Golf Club.

Today, he'll tee off with some of the world's best pro golfers in the Champions Tour's first major of the year.

Skinner is playing in his first-ever Senior PGA Championship this year after turning 50 last August -- the qualifying age for pro golf's senior circuit. It will also mark his third career shot at a major title after he played in two PGA Tour Championships (2010 and 2008), although he missed the cut in both.

This time, however, Skinner hopes for a better showing, despite the fact he knows the odds are stacked against him.

"I may not be playing my best golf right now mostly because I haven't had a lot of time to practice -- but I'm ready, man," Skinner said by telephone Wednesday evening from Louisville, Ky., site of this year's Senior PGA. "And this is a field of the best senior golfers in the world. I don't think I have a great chance to win, but when I wake up (this morning) and head to the course, I'll definitely be playing to win."

Skinner qualified for the tournament by finishing in the Top 35 of the National Senior Club Pro Championship last year, taking sixth in Palm Springs.

But he'll be playing in unfamiliar territory this week at the famed Valhalla Golf Club, which was designed by PGA legend Jack Nicklaus. Skinner, outside of three practice rounds last week and one Wednesday morning, has never had a chance to tee off for a tournament on the course that's rich with history.

"Valhalla is where they held the last Ryder Cup that the U.S. team won when Paul Azinger was the captain and (former ABAC star) Boo Weekley got all that attention for riding the golf club around like a horse," Skinner said with a laugh. "It's also the course where Tiger Woods beat Bob May for the PGA Championship.

"But as a player, I don't know much about it other than what I've learned in the past few days. And it's really wet right now. This area's had a lot of rainfall the last month and we're already hearing there's hail and tornadoes and all kinds of bad weather predicted here for (today). They're already telling us to be prepared to play through Monday."

But to even get to Monday, Skinner first has to make the cut -- something he was able to do in his first, and only, Champions Tour event he played this season at the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic when he finished tied for 56th. He's also coming off a second-place finish at the Georgia Senior PGA Championship this past weekend, although Skinner said he was not encouraged by how he performed. He said he should've won the tournament.

"I'm always nervous before a golf tournament, especially playing against a field like this and even more so because my game hasn't been at its best," said Skinner, who tees off at 9:20 a.m. today. "Yeah, I finished second last weekend (at the Georgia Senior PGA) and shot even par, but the course was set up easy and I should've played better than I did.

"But I didn't come up here not ready for the challenge. I'm ready. I play in golf tournaments -- and have been for the last 30 years -- because I love the challenge and I like to see how I can handle (big stages like this). I'm really looking forward to this week."

There will be added pressure this week due to the fact Skinner is also being featured in a documentary film by PGA of America, which shot Skinner's first portion of the video two weeks ago in Albany at River Pointe. The film crew -- whose goal in featuring Skinner was to document the life and careers of a handful of club pros competing the Senior PGA -- will also be tagging along this week with Skinner and several other PGA of America club pros to follow their progress and bring their stories full circle. The film is scheduled to air "in a month or so," Skinner said, on The Golf Channel.

"They just wanted to see my life as a teaching pro at River Pointe and what I do on a daily basis there in Albany, as well as talk to me about my career and my family life," said Skinner, who is a worthy candidate to be featured, considering he's the PGA of America's reigning Senior Player of the Year and a former winner of its coveted Player of the Year honor before he started playing on the senior tour. He's also the only player to ever win both awards.

"I really want to play well this week because it's the biggest tournament I've played in since I turned 50 (and third-biggest behind the two PGA Championships in 2008 and 2010)," Skinner added. "And so far, it's been fun being here. They gave all the players these really nice Mercedes to drive this week -- a S-400 Hybrid, very, very sweet car -- and me and a buddy are about to go out and have a bite to eat."

There will be almost 40 PGA of America club pros competing this week, Skinner included, but the odds are not in their favor to emerge victorious. Only one club pro has ever won the Senior PGA: Tom Wargo of Missouri in 1993.

The favorite, meanwhile, this week will be hands-down Tom Lehman, the defending champion. Other favorites include luminaries such as Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Nick Price and Mark O'Meara -- all players who have dominated the Champions Tour since becoming eligible to join.

Skinner would like to be talked about in the same breath of greatness after this week.

"I just have to get out there, keep the ball in front of me, hit fairways and stay patient," he said. "And hopefully, I'll be one of the guys near the top by the end of the weekend."