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Derek Lamely's Wild Ride

by Jeff Berlinicke

DEREK LAMELY KNOWS there are no guarantees in golf. He’s not a prodigy and never played golf until he was 14.

In professional golf, the learning curve usually begins around the age of two. Learning to play at 14 might be great for the weekend hacker, but if you want to make your living hitting a small round ball, you are way behind.

It’s the only sport where you don’t earn money unless you perform well. In any major sport, there are contracts and guarantees. On the PGA Tour, you can travel, pay for your caddy and the rest of the entourage, practice for a day, play in a pro-am, miss the cut, and go home with nothing but a “thanks for coming.’’

That’s life on the PGA Tour and Lamely, a graduate of Florida Gulf Coast University and a resident of Fort Myers, is enjoying the ups and downs that come with the traveling carnival that is the PGA Tour.

Lamely didn’t even consider trying to make a living on the Tour until he was about 16-years-old. That’s right about the time Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were lining up agents and fighting off college coaches throwing scholarships at their feet.

“I was a late bloomer,’’ Lamely said. “No one forced me to play, but I just got hooked. I didn’t even know I was any good. I never felt a click, I just put in hard work.’’

The ‘click’ is the feeling all good golfers have when they simply feel everything is right and they have found the right swing. Lamely said he didn’t know where it came from, but it has led him to where he is now.

Lamely started his college career at McNeese State before transferring to Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, where his parents had retired. Although his career has him traveling the world, Lamely calls Fort Myers home. He plays at Verandah Golf Club in Fort Myers on a regular basis, and although the life of a golfer is that of a vagabond, Lamely wants to stay in Fort Myers for a long time.

The PGA Tour is never an easy ride and Lamely has hit some speed bumps along the way. But his win at the Puerto Rican Open last year guaranteed him a Tour card for two years. Lamely, who has bounced around various mini-tours for several years, knows the exemption isn’t forever. Once it expires next year, Lamely is back to grinding it out, trying to finish inside the top-125 money makers on the Tour, which would guarantee him another year to get into the top 125 again.

That’s the life of a PGA Tour player. From one year to the next, you are battling for your career. The Phil Mickelsons of the world can pretty much guarantee that their careers will go on for at least another year. The Derek Lamelys of the world are playing for their golfing lives. Stay out of the top 125, it’s back to golf’s minor leagues. The big boys get to play Augusta, Ponte Vedra Beach, and Pebble Beach. Finish out of the top 125, you get to tour Arkansas, South Dakota, and Mississippi, playing before family, friends and others who happen to drift by.

As of August 9, Lamely was No. 216 on the earnings list, which means he has a long way to go to save his card. Otherwise it’s back to the grueling six-day torture that is PGA Tour Qualifying School.

The season started out well with a first round 63 to lead at the Bob Hope Classic in January. He followed that with a 73, a 72, and then went 64 & 67 to finish tied for 13th. That set Lamely up for what he thought would be a decent year, at least a chance to keep his card next year. Instead, he suffered a cartilage tear in his right wrist and that started a downslide. He went onto miss the cuts in his next 13 tournaments with a withdrawal in between. His 65 at the Greenbrier Classic in West Virginia in August gave him a 43rd place finish.

Lamely said his wrist feels better. “I am healthy again and I know my golf game is getting a lot better,’’ Lamely said. “It gets sore now and then, but it’s getting better.’’

Such is life for a PGA Tour professional. Lamely went from the middle of January until the middle of July without making a penny. Tour golfers pay their way and if they miss the cut and are slamming the trunks on Friday, it’s a wasted week. Lamely has had a lot of those weeks this year, but he’s doing what he loves to do for a living and, after all, there’s always the next week, right?

“I love doing what I do,’’ Lamely said before teeing off at the Reno-Tahoe Open in early August. (Lamely shot 73 & 79 and missed the cut).

The win in Puerto Rico last year was not Lamely’s biggest, even though it netted him the most money. It was a win on the Nationwide Tour – Golf’s version of the minor leagues – that got him to Puerto Rico in the first place.

He had been struggling on the Nationwide Tour in 2009 and seemed destined to another year playing before family and friends in golf’s minor leagues. Then lightning struck. Trailing by eight shots going into the last round of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational in Columbus, Ohio, he went low. Really low, with a 65 that got him into a playoff with current PGA Tour sensation Rickie Fowler. Lamely won on the second playoff hole and netted $139,500 to move from 135th on the Nationwide money list to No. 12. A second-place finish, followed by two more top-10s got him to third-place on the Nationwide money list and an automatic card for this year’s PGA Tour.

Most players who get their PGA Tour card don’t keep it for long. Among the many ways to hold onto their automatic exemption is to finish in the top 125 or to win a Tour event. Lamely has his exemption for next year thanks to his win in Puerto Rico, which came out of nowhere. Heading into the event his best finish had been tied for 18th at the Bob Hope. Suddenly. For one week, it all came together.

But he has struggled this year and knows that the 2012 season is key if he doesn’t want to return to Qualifying School.

“It’s frustrating,’’ Lamely said. “I need to get a win. I know I have one in me.’’

Recalling how he felt after his win in Puerto Rico, Lamely said, “It was awesome. All I want to do is feel that same way all over again.’’

Lamely plans to play at Walt Disney World in the final official event of the season in late October. It’s one of the more interesting and important events of the Tour since most of the top players bypass it and it’s the last chance for players looking to crash the top-125 or to win an event to cement their eligibility for another two years.

“It’s been a great ride,’’ Lamely said. “I love doing this and I am feeling good. It’s starting to come together.’’ •

from the September-October 2011 issue

The season started out well
with a first round 63 to lead
at the Bob Hope Classic
and a 13th round finish

His win at the
Puerto Rican Open
last year guaranteed him
a Tour card for two years,
but once it expires
Lamely is back to trying
to finish inside the top-125
money makers on the Tour.