By Brad King
Less than 20 minutes into his final round at the 2020 Carolinas PGA Professional Championship, Tommy Gibson was forced to change his mind set.
Gibson, 31, an assistant professional at Winston-Salem’s Old Town Club, had played rock-steady golf during the prestigious tournament’s first two rounds. He posted a pair of even-par 72s at Daniel Island Club in Charleston, S.C., which left him entering the final round in a three-way tie for seventh place, just three shots behind the leader.
Yet, after a rare double bogey on the first hole of his final round, Gibson said he had to quickly rethink his strategy. He knew that only the top nine finishers at the event would qualify for next April’s PGA Professional Championship in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and from there a chance to qualify for the 2021 PGA Championship.
“So, I start with a double, so my focus probably shifted a little bit from trying to win the golf tournament,” he said. “Now, I’m just trying to play smart, so I can finish in the top nine to qualify for the National Club Pro. (I’m thinking) maybe I just need to back off a little bit, just make sure I’m hitting some greens, giving myself chances for birdie and not putting more pressure on myself.”
Reducing the pressure seemed to do the trick as Gibson proceeded to reel off four birdies during the next 13 holes.
“I’m not a big scoreboard watcher, so I never looked at the leaderboard one time during the final round, just because I’ve always felt looking at the board just causes more stress,” Gibson said.
After lipping out an 8-footer for birdie on the final hole, Gibson received a surprise from his playing partner.
“Aaron Black looked at me and said, ‘Man, that (putt) was to take the lead,’” Gibson said. “I said, ‘Take the lead for what?’ He said, ‘For the tournament.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding me.’ He said, ‘Haven’t you been watching the leaderboard?’ I said, ‘No, I’m just trying to make birdies the last few holes, you know?’”
Gibson then began a tantalizing, half-hour wait for the final three groups to finish. He and one other competitor, Ray Franz, a professional at Daniel Island, were the leaders in the clubhouse at 1-under.
“Most of these guys coming in are 1-under,” Gibson said. “I think five or six guys. Everybody’s hitting it up there to, you know, 10, 12 feet, missing; 10, 12 feet, missing. I started thinking, ‘I’m going to be a playoff. I gotta go the putting green. So, I ran to the putting green and hit about 30 or 40 putts.”
By the end of the round, Gibson and Franz were joined by three others — former PGA Tour winner Neal Lancaster, The Reserve Golf Club’s Ryan Tyndall and Matt Bova from the Country Club of Charleston — in a sudden-death playoff to determine the champion.
“All of them are great players,” Gibson said. “We went to the 18th tee and we all hit pretty decent drives at the par-5, where it’s not really worth going for it in two. So, everybody laid up. I was the last one to hit. I think I had 82 yards and hit it to like a quarter of an inch from the hole.”
After tapping in for birdie and watching Lancaster and Bova miss their birdie attempts, Gibson said he caught the eye of tournament director Mike Whitenack.
“Mike says to me, ‘How special would it be if you won this thing?’ I said, ‘I first started playing golf at 3 years old. My dad was a club pro. He still is today. He played in the Honda Classic two years in a row, taught (LPGA standout) Cristie Kerr how to play golf,” Gibson said. “’Just to be able to play in a (PGA) Tour event would be unbelievably humbling and special for our family.’”
Of course, there was one player still alive. Franz was the final member the fivesome to putt — and he calmly drained an 18-footer for birdie, sending the remaining two competitors back to the 18th tee box.
“I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’” Gibson said, with a chuckle. “I’ve played professional golf for about 8 or 9 years and I’ve come so close to making it so many times. Billy Mayfair knocked me out (of qualifying for the Wells Fargo Championship) at Quail Hollow one year. I missed the U.S. Open by two shots one year — just one thing after another — just so close. Then to see it starting to crumble away again, you know you get that feeling like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is not going to happen again.’”
Replaying the 18th hole for the third time in less than an hour, Franz and Gibson once again had good looks at birdie — Franz from 15 feet and Gibson from 8.
Franz missed on his attempt.
“I had this calm sensation and tingling all over my body,” Gibson said. “I was like, ‘You know, it’s all in your hands now. This is what you practice for. I’ve practiced these short putts for so long, for this moment.’
“I just went to my routine, got over it, looked at the hole one time, looked back and hit it. It got about 4 feet from the hole and my eyes just started watering, because I knew it was going to go dead center,” he said. “And it did. So that was pretty cool.”
Along with a winner’s check for $8,500 and a spot in the 2021 PGA Professional Championship, Gibson also earned a spot in next April’s RBC Heritage Classic on Hilton Head Island, which will be his first PGA Tour appearance.
“In 2012, I won on the Hooters Tour (now the Korn Ferry Tour),” Gibson said. “There were 180 guys in the field and I won just under $15,000. It took 17-under to win a three-day event. But at that point, you don’t really get anything but a check. At this event, you get a pretty decent check and you get into a (PGA) Tour event. I would say this one might be my biggest win, because this one has better perks.”
Gibson feels confident about his chances at next year’s PGA Professional Championship, to be contested April 25-28, 2021 at PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, Fla. “Fun fact about that golf course — that’s about 20 minutes south of where I used to work in Vero Beach, so I played in multiple mini tour events out there,” he said. “I know that golf course like the back of my hand. It’s pretty comforting to go somewhere that you know so well.”
Gibson’s victory at the CPGA Professional Championship also continued Old Town Club’s stranglehold on the event. Wake Forest men’s golf coach Jerry Haas, an Old Town member, won the tournament in 2014. In 2017, Old Town head pro Charles Frost — who is Gibson’s swing coach — won the championship, followed in 2018 by another Old Town member, Steve Scott, who is most famous for his runner-up finish to Tiger Woods at the 1996 U.S. Amateur.
“Old Town is the place to be right now, it really is,” Gibson said. “It’s very wide open off the tee, so it’s very friendly to someone who’s not a great driver of the golf ball, but you never have a flat lie on your second shot — the ball’s either below your feet or you’re tilting to a left or tilting to the right. And then there’s a ton of undulation on the greens.
“When you add up the difficulty of the lies and the creativity you’ve got to have to play the golf course, I think that’s a big part of it. When you leave Old Town and you go to other places, it just makes other places seem so easy. It’s definitely a players’ club.”