River Pointe Golf Club head pro Sonny Skinner says the Oak Hill course he’ll play this year’s PGA Championship on is the toughest test he’s ever faced in his 30-plus years as a professional golfer. Skinner tees off today at 2:20 p.m.
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Steve Tambroni stood outside the player’s lounge Wednesday at Oak Hill Country Club, and his eyes began to well with tears.
His voice was thick with emotion as he talked about the 95th PGA Championship, the year’s final major of the PGA Tour and a tournament in which he will be carrying the bag of River Pointe Golf Club head pro Sonny Skinner.
Passion radiated from Tambroni, a 63-year-old Albany resident, as he explained what the experience of caddying at a major championship meant to him. But then he started to talk about Skinner, and his emotions began to overtake him.
“I told Sonny, ‘Do you remember the movie, “The Miracle on Ice”?’ ” Tambroni said, reliving a conversation with Skinner during a phone interview with The Herald on Wednesday. “Then I said, ‘This year it’s going to be “The Miracle at Oak Hill.” All you have to do is swing away. Just swing free.’ ”
Skinner is playing in his third PGA Championship and is one of the biggest longshots in the field with odds as high as 500-to-1, but the 52-year-old, who is the third-oldest golfer in the tournament, said he is taking the difficulty of both the field and course in stride.
“That ought to be at least worth a dollar,” Skinner laughed when told of his 500-1 odds. “I feel pretty good. I am going to be hitting it good. I definitely think I can step out there and hit the fairway and hit the greens.”
And Skinner has at least one supporter who thinks he has a shot.
“Everybody knows what a great guy Sonny is,” began Tambroni, a member at River Pointe and long-time friend of Skinner.
Tambroni then added: “He is probably the greatest ambassador of golf I have ever met. Coming to a venue like this, you might start to think that you are over-classed. But I looked at Sonny and said to him, ‘The greatest golfers in the world are right here, and you are one of them. You have nothing to lose. Just play the game the way you know how and swing away.’ ”
Skinner and Tambroni have been in Rochester, N.Y., all week, soaking in the circus-like atmosphere and playing practice rounds on a course that Skinner says is the toughest he has played in his 31-year career as a professional golfer.
Skinner — who is in the last group to tee off today at 2:25 p.m. and will play with Richard Ramsay and Gary Woodland, last week’s winner at the Reno-Tahoe Open — became a national sensation in May when he surged to a tie for third after the first round of the Senior PGA Championship and made top-play highlights around the country after chipping in from 40 feet.
Skinner, who qualified for the PGA Championship by finishing in the Top 20 in last month’s PGA Professional National Championship, admits making any waves this weekend could be nearly impossible.
“I have never played in rough this high,” he said during a phone interview with The Herald on Wednesday. “It just puts a premium on every aspect of your game. You find yourself out there at times thinking, ‘Can I do this?’
“Realistically, I just have to apply myself on every shot. I have to be as optimistic as I can be, so I can hit a good shot. You can’t go out there and get careless and hit into the rough, or you will get bogey, double bogey or worse. There are going to be some people out there shooting in the 90s.”
Skinner played three practice rounds Sunday through Tuesday, then played three more holes Wednesday. He believes the biggest battle will be avoiding big numbers if he hits into the rough.
“If I hit into the rough, all I can do is pitch out,” he said. “In all of the practice holes I have played, I’ve made probably just three birdies. It’s been really hard. I wouldn’t have broken 76 any day I played if I had been keeping score.”
The week leading up to today’s opening round has been a whirlwind of golf and glamour for the duo from Albany, who have been treated like royalty by both professional golfers and fans.
“There are more people out here every day than I have ever seen on a golf course,” Skinner said. “In practice rounds, the crowds are like it’s a Sunday. I have signed a thousand or more autographs. It’s amazing. They have these flags and get all the players to autograph them. At least 50 times I have grabbed a flag to sign, and I see my name already on it.”
Even Tambroni, a retired MillerCoors employee who hasn’t caddied for years, is getting some penmanship practice this week.
“I was walking the course (alone) to get some yardage, and people were coming up to me asking for autographs, and I told them that I was just a caddy. They said that they didn’t care,” Tambroni said. “Sonny usually tosses me a couple of balls after the round, and I look for the littlest kids I can find. You just need to see the look on these kids’ faces when you give them a golf ball or glove.”
At times, Tambroni has felt like a kid himself during the pre-tournament festivities.
“That first time I took my yardage book to walk the course and walked off the first tee, I got goose bumps,” he said. “Rubbing elbows with the best golfers in the world and seeing these guys hit balls is unbelievable. Every top golfer you can think of, I have been within 10 feet of them. It’s probably the greatest golf experience I have had in my life.
“It’s a heart-pumping thing. I am 63 years old. I have been running seven miles and doing 100 push-ups a day to get ready for this thing. Right now it feels like I’m 12 years old again.”
Skinner said the positive attitude and calming influence of Tambroni might be his biggest asset this week, which is why he didn’t choose a caddy with even a minimal knowledge of the famed Oak Hill course.
“What players like is having that familiar person with him who knows where to stand and how to act and how to travel,” Skinner explained. “I have friends with me who make me feel good. They are encouraging and love the experience. And when they are having fun, I am having fun.”
And Tambroni is having a blast.
“We have been standing on the driving range, and we will have Adam Scott on one side, Justin Rose right behind us and Luke Donald a few players over,” Skinner said. “You look over and they are hitting balls at the same time you are. It’s kind of surreal. (Steve) has told me at least 100 times that this is the time of his life. It’s fun having someone around that is that excited and positive.”
Out of all of the top players from around the world who are teeing it up today, Skinner believes there is only a handful who have a chance to win it.
“There is probably only realistically 15 people in this tournament who have a chance to win,” he said. “Without a doubt Tiger (Woods) is the guy to beat. He is playing as good as anybody right now.”
The 7,134-yard, par-70 course could get the best of nearly everybody in the field, especially those who can’t find the fairway.
“If I miss the fairway it’s an automatic bogey or double bogey,” he said. “I have to go about it in a workman-like way. I have been (in a major championship) before, so this is nothing new to me, except for how deep the rough is. But I have to quit thinking about the rough and start thinking about the middle of the fairway and the middle of the green.”
Skinner has played in four events this season — two on the Champions Tour and two on the Web.com Tour — and his best finish was a tie for 35th in the Senior PGA Championship. His two previous PGA Championship appearances were in 2008 at Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan and 2010 at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, but he missed the cut both times.
But teeing it up with the best players in the world never gets old.
“This is not like any other tournament,” he said. “Trust me, it’s going to be really cool (when I step on that first tee). There is going to be a ton of people there when I tee off (today). They will probably all be finishing up watching Tiger play.”
Skinner hasn’t given himself a target score but only says that he wants to “apply myself every day the best that I can.”
Skinner then added with a laugh: “I do wish I was younger. A younger Sonny Skinner would have thought he could have won this thing.”
An older Sonny Skinner might not be as hopeful, but he’s just as grateful and humble to have the chance.
“I’m sitting here in the locker room, and Webb Simpson, who won the U.S. Open, has a locker right next to me,” he said. “I have a Masters champion and two U.S. Open champions within five feet of me.
“So yeah, I’m just trying to enjoy every moment.”