River Pointe Golf Club pro Sonny Skinner had the pro golf world abuzz after his opening-round score of 4-under Thursday in St. Louis at the 74th annual Senior PGA Championship — the toughest field out of all the Champions Tour majors.
ST. LOUIS — When The Herald caught up with Sonny Skinner last week during the college signing of a local player he mentors, Skinner was asked how he felt about his game heading into this week’s 74th Senior PGA Championship, which he qualified for as a club pro for the third straight year.
His answer was not reassuring.
“I’m not playing great,” Skinner said at the time. “So, we’ll see what happens.”
Whatever was ailing the head pro at River Pointe Golf Club in Albany seems to have passed as Skinner had the star-studded Champions Tour field all abuzz Thursday afternoon when he shot 4-under in the first round. That was good for a tie for third with Japan’s Kiyoshi Murota, while both trailed overall leaders Jay Haas and Duffy Waldorf (5-under) by a stroke.
As the scorecards trickled in and the Day 1 scoreboard became complete, golf fans on message boards everywhere were asking the same questions: “Four-under? From a club pro? Who is this Sonny Skinner guy?”
“Well, how about that?” Skinner said during a telephone interview with The Herald on Thursday evening when told of the reaction to his suddenly notoriety. “That’s pretty cool.”
Even cooler was the reaction Skinner received from many of the well-known senior tour players, whom Skinner has known for years.
“Loren Roberts, Mark O’Mearo, Jay Haas — they all came up and said something to me,” Skinner said. “I think everybody likes the underdog, and when they see an underdog have a good day, they know it’s not the norm — and they love competing against that.”
But what makes Skinner’s opening-round score even more amazing is that he didn’t practice a lick — none, zero, zilch, nada — coming into the biggest tournament of the year.
Um, OK ... and why?
“I just hadn’t been playing good, so when I was home last week, I didn’t play a single round of golf,” Skinner said. “I just needed to shake the cobwebs out, get a fresh outlook on things and then drive up here with a different approach.
“And while my practices (before the tournament) were better, even when I warmed up (Thursday) morning, I didn’t feel that great. I thought, ‘Oh, boy, this is going to be a struggle.’ ”
It was anything but.
Skinner, who had never shot lower than 2-under in any round he’d played in his previous two Senior PGA events (2011 and 2012), opened play on the back nine at 1-under with bogeys on Nos. 11 and 16 and birdies on Nos. 15, 17 and 18. Skinner said he was pleased to find himself under par when he made the turn, but he also knew he was capable of posting a much lower score.
“I scrambled so much to get this score because — to be honest — I didn’t play all that great (Thursday),” said the 52-year-old Skinner, who earned the honor of being the low club pro at the Senior PGA in 2011, but he missed the cut a year later in his second try. “When you scramble, you can turn bad into good a lot of the time. You get a four when you should’ve probably got a five, and before you know it you’ve made a couple birdies and you’re under par. That’s how the first round felt.”
Skinner, the only club pro to ever be named PGA of America Player of the Year and Senior Player of the Year, then blistered the front nine, birdieing three of the first four holes. He even had two chances to tie or take the lead outright on Nos. 8 and 9, but he missed two makeable birdie putts and had to settle for par.
“I had an opening there,” he said. “But I won’t complain one bit about my score. Four-under is a good score. I always feel like I can put up a number like that, and when you don’t miss a fairway like I didn’t (Thursday), it makes your round a whole lot easier.”
But there was nothing easy about Skinner’s up-and-down miracle he performed on No. 6 late in his round. At 4-under and flirting with the lead at that stage, Skinner got himself into trouble by burying an approach shot on the lip of the bunker. Knowing he probably couldn’t go for the green in one shot, Skinner admitted he thought he was sunk.
“I’m thinking thatI’m going to be lucky to walk away with a double at that point,” he said.
Not so fast.
T.J. Auclair, a writer for PGATour.com, watched Skinner’s amazing series of shots unfold, and he recapped the moment — a moment The Golf Channel later called its “Shot of the Day” — during his recap for the website Thursday.
“Faced with a horrible lie and the ball some three feet below his feet, Skinner bladed the ball and sent it through the green about 40 yards from the hole,” Auclair wrote. “Remembering that it was a good spot to miss and realizing he could still salvage bogey, Skinner played an aggressive pitch shot that somehow fell into the cup for an unlikely par.”
“You don’t see that every day,” Skinner laughed. “That was the highlight of my day.”
The fact that Skinner is seriously in the hunt not for just his first tour title — but it’s coming at a major of all tournaments — isn’t shaking this golf veteran, who has played under pressure all over the country during his three-decade career. Skinner also knows a club pro has never won the Senior PGA Championship — or any Champions Tour major, for that matter — but that won’t change his approach or rattle him going forward, he said.
“This course is all about putting it in play off the tee — I can do that consistently. Hitting fairways is key, and that’s what I did (Thursday),” he said. “And as long as I keep my mind on each shot in the moment and give the same intention to every shot, I think it will continue to serve me well,. It has so far.”