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Field of Dreamers

The vast majority of players who succeed in Monday qualifying for a Champions Tour event are either highly talented former club pros, former PGA Tour veterans or former amateur standouts whose competitive experience gives them an invaluable edge. Robert Landers, an unheralded farmer from Azle, Texas, battled through the tour's qualifying school in 1994, but almost all of the new faces who actually make it onto the senior circuit in a given year are players with strong track records in local, regional or national tournaments. As Overton puts it, "Except for Landers, we haven't ever had a Walter Mitty who has absolutely never been heard of before."

But that doesn't stop the Walter Mittys from trying. One of the more charming aspects of Monday qualifiers for the Champions Tour is that they are open to virtually all comers who are already pros or amateurs willing to automatically lose their amateur status. An applicant merely needs to plunk down an entry fee of $315 and be prepared to produce a birth certificate verifying that he has reached the age of fifty. The tour reserves the right to limit Monday qualifying fields to 144 participants and to bar players from future Monday qualifiers if they fail to "perform at a reasonable competitive level." But Monday qualifiers seldom attract a full field (the average is 100 players), and depending on the weather conditions, it is not uncommon for half the field to shoot over eighty.

At the Bethpage qualifier, there was the usual sampling of former and part-time club pros like Jarvis and Overton; former PGA Tour veterans Rod Curl, Danny Edwards and Rex Caldwell; former Walker Cupper John Harris; Doug Johnson, who had already made it through four Monday qualifiers in 2002; and Brazilian touring pro Rafael Navarro, who had Monday qualified for the FleetBoston Classic the previous week. But the lineup also featured an even more colorful assortment of "no names." Some were independently wealthy men on a lark. Others were dedicated strivers and dreamers with surprisingly solid golf games. They included a former state revenue commissioner, a former high-school math teacher, a former computer-software expert, the former Walter Mitty of the PGA Tour's Monday qualifying circuit and a long hitting local club pro as well as the Monday qualifying circuit's traveling evangelical minister.

Dean Sessions is often reminded that his last name rhymes with "obsessions." A fifty-one-year-old former college-baseball star with silvery hair, he is currently in the midst of pursuing his second grand obsession. His first one was to qualify for the PGA Tour. He made it happen—sort of—at enormous cost. After turning pro at age thirty-six, Sessions failed in thirteen attempts to make it through PGA Tour qualifying school. He also played in more than 150 PGA Tour and Nike Tour Monday qualifiers, gaining spots in just three Nike events and one PGA Tour event, the 1991 St. Jude Classic, where he shot 81-81. Along the way, he spent over $250,000, effectively consuming his entire life savings.

Sessions is now hell-bent on qualifying for the Champions Tour. He has come close three times, losing in play-offs for the fourth qualifying spots in the 2002 Senior British Open, the 2002 Napa Valley Championship and the 2001 Bruno's Memorial Classic. He failed to qualify for the Lightpath but plans to continue playing a full schedule of Monday qualifiers for the foreseeable future. Although he and his wife temporarily regained sound financial footing with stock-market investments, they are once again reeling from the market's downturn. Sessions remains unfazed.

"We've run out of money twice," he says. "But I won't quit until I make it."

Traveling buddies Jim White, 54, and Ed Williams, 55, have each made it through a Champions Tour Monday qualifier. Both are African-Americans who took up golf relatively late in life while pursuing other careers. White is a certified public accountant from Birmingham, Alabama, who served as the state's first black revenue commissioner under Governor George C. Wallace and the state's first black financial director under Governor Jim Folsom. Lean and wiry, he played baseball and basketball in college and later played tennis on an amateur minitour. He entered the Bruno's Memorial Classic in both 1999 and 2000 with the help of a sponsor's exemption.

As of the qualifier at Bethpage, where he shot a respectable one-under-par sixty-seven to miss a play-off by two strokes, White's total earnings on the Champions Tour were $2,600. A numbers cruncher by profession, he is keenly aware that the costs of playing on the Monday qualifying circuit range between $1,000 and $1,500 a week in travel, food and lodging expenses above and beyond the $315 entry fee. But he considers the experience to be anything but a losing investment.

"Monday qualifying is hell and getting more hell, but I love it," says White. "It's a second career for me, and it's one I've got to get up for every day. It keeps me going. I don't know what I'd be doing without it."

Williams taught math for thirty years at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he still lives with his girlfriend, Linda, an accomplished golfer who sometimes caddies for him. Brawny and broad shouldered with a buttery smooth tempo, Williams made it through the third Monday qualifier he entered, winning a spot in the 1999 State Farm Classic. He has played in over two dozen qualifiers since then without success. His best finish was in the 2001 Lightpath qualifier at Bethpage, where he fired a sixty-eight but was eliminated in a play-off for the final spot. In the 2002 Lightpath, he failed to turn in a card after losing a ball on the fifteenth hole. His lifetime earnings on the Champions Tour are a paltry $1,300, but like his buddy White, he loves competing against the best players of his generation.

"Most of the guys out here have been playing golf for thirty years," he notes. "Jim and I are just trying to catch up with them. We love the challenge of trying to close the gap between us and the guys who do it all the time."

Mike Wibby, 50, knows how hard it is to close the gap, especially when you're coming straight out of the corporate world. Silver haired and slump shouldered, Wibby is a courtly, soft-spoken software expert who spent eighteen years automating sales-force systems at Duracell near his home in suburban Connecticut. He didn't take up golf until age twenty-seven, but what began as a corporate networking exercise quickly grew into a passion that continues to be full of unconquered challenges. His best score ever is sixty-six. At the Bethpage event, he carded a seventy-six. His best score in six previous Monday qualifiers was seventy-four.


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