Harston, a qualifier, says his knowledge of Valhalla a plus
With only two spots each week for qualifiers and just seven each year at Qualifying School, earning a spot into a Champions Tour event has become one of the toughest tickets in golf.
Just ask Buddy Harston.
The pro at Lexington Country Club has been tooling around the country for almost three years trying to earn a spot on tour.
So the 52-year-old wants to make the most of his opportunity this week when he tees it up in the 65th annual Senior PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club.
“You have to take advantage when you get a chance out here,” Harston said in a recent interview during the Champions Tour stop in Pensacola, Fla.. “I’m certainly not going to quit. It takes a little while to learn all the different courses out here.
“That’s why I need to try and take advantage (in the Senior PGA). I don’t think anybody but maybe Fuzzy (Zoeller) has played Valhalla more than me. Valhalla is so tough, so I’m not going in overconfident. But it helps to know the course.”
Harston, who missed qualifying for five tournaments by one stroke two years ago, played in three senior events last year and qualified for the Pensacola event this year. He missed the cut in the Senior PGA and U.S. Senior Open last year and earned $1,050 in the Hickory, N.C. event, and this year he made $2,100 in Pensacola.
“I feel more and more comfortable with each one I get into,” he said. “Just walking into the clubhouse, at first I would look around to some of the guys and feel like I didn’t belong there. Now I walk in and some of the guys are starting to recognize me and it’s like, ‘Hey Buddy.'”
Now he’ll get another shot on a course he’s familiar with.
He qualified for the 2003 PGA Championship by finishing 21st at the PGA Club Pro Championship at Valhalla. He’s also played numerous other rounds on the course over the years.
“I’m really looking forward to this,” he said. “I have played (Valhalla) enough to where I have played it well, but if you are a little bit off, then you can shoot 82 in a heartbeat. Majors are something special, and this should be a lot of fun.”
Harston, who was born in Nashville, Tenn., has been the pro at Lexington Country Club for almost 20 years. He played in two PGA Tour events — the 1984 Memphis Open and ’98 Hawaiian Open — but has seemed to improve with age.
Harston, who still teaches about 15-20 lessons a week in Lexington, started to focus more on his own game as he got closer to 50.
A fitness program he started in his mid-40s helped him physically, and his skills just kept getting better. He won the 2000 Kentucky Open and has been named Kentucky PGA Player of the Year three times.
“I still feel like my game is going up,” he said. “I guess I just worked hard, and that’s why it keeps going up. One thing is that I started working on my short game. My wedge play has gotten so much better from inside 100 yards.”
Harston also drew inspiration from his daughter, Palmer. While on vacation in April 1995, Palmer, her sister Taylor and mother Julie were in a serious car accident. Palmer suffered a spinal cord injury, and as a result her legs are paralyzed.
But she didn’t give up. She still does gymnastics, was the 2000 national youth representative for Easter Seals, was the president of her class at Lexington Christian, the captain of the cheerleading squad and has a full scholarship to Vanderbilt starting this fall.
“Every now and then if things start going bad for me, I’ll think, ‘You know, I can still walk,’ so that really helps,” Buddy said. “My daughter has made such an adjustment. It’s unbelievable. Things could be worse. She has spurred me on some.”
She’ll be at Valhalla this week, along with her mom and sister, watching her father try to keep making a name for himself among the world’s top older golfers.
Harston, who will tee off No. 1 on Thursday at 7:30 a.m., said he isn’t ready to predict a win this week but said he can still think about it.
“Last year the three that I played in it was getting comfortable and just not embarrass yourself, but now I am here to win,” he said. “I feel more like it’s the Kentucky Open. I’m getting more and more comfortable. I don’t say it with a lot of bravado, but I am here to win the tournament. It’s possible, so let’s dream.
“Hey, if you are going to dream, dream big.”
By JODY DEMLING