COLUMBIANA — In 1999, Copeland Hills and Castle Shannon golf club professional Paul Wackerly III was playing alongside David Gossett in the first stage of PGA Tour Qualifying School. The pair was in the final group at a course in Tennessee. Having already shot well enough to advance to the next stage, neither golfer was exactly pining over each shot as they came into the final stretch of holes.
“We were pretty much just messing around at that point,” Wackerly said. “We got to the 15th hole and I sank a 20-footer for par. Then he sank about a 20-footer for par and got fired up and gave a fist pump. I said, ‘Dave, you shouldn’t of done that, because now I’m gonna bury you.’ And I did. He was playing in front of all his friends and family. But that ticked me off.”
Call it competitive spirit, when the 1990 graduate of Malvern High School saw the gesture, it ignited him.
“You’ve got to be cocky to play this game,” he said. “If you’re not, go take up something else.”
That cockiness not only led to Wackerly putting away a formidable playing round partner, (Gossett did play for a brief stint on the PGA Tour and won the John Deere Classic in 2001), it led to Wackerly winning the first stage of Q-School that year, and has helped guide him to 28 mini-tour wins, four section event victories, five first-stage U.S. Open qualifier wins, and 11 course records. He was also named 2007 Northern Ohio PGA Section Player of the Year.
Wackerly turned pro at age 19. He was highly recruited for baseball but when he wasn’t drafted by the big leagues, he turned to golf.
He’s missed qualifying for the U.S. Open by one shot more than once, and was a bad hole away from earning his PGA Tour card at Q-School in 1999.
As close as he’s been, Wackerly isn’t about to give up a shot at playing on the PGA Tour anytime soon. He’s going back to tour school in the fall after spending last year and the spring helping refurbish Copeland Hills as well as Castle Shannon.
“The grind of doing it for 15 years wears you out,” he said.
A life on the mini-tours is no picnic. Just making enough money to get from tournament to tournament can be the difference of whether or not a player calls it quits for good. But giving it up was never something Wackerly considered.
“On the mini-tours, you really get to find out what kind of player you are,” he said. “If you just go out and whack it around and give up after a couple bad shots, you’re not gonna make it. Some guys will just say my parents have money and I’ll get better because of it, but it just doesn’t work that way. If you don’t have any money you have to go out and work twice as hard as everybody else to stay out there. Because there are going to be some weeks where you’re not going to be able to make your car payment if you don’t play well.”
Wackerly has just about seen it all when it comes to the game of golf and what it takes to make a living doing it paycheck to paycheck out on the road.
“It’s really, really expensive, but you go around and find the cheapest place and stay there,” he said. “You run into some real dumps, but the cheaper you can do it, the more money you can make. And you can’t go out and spend money when you’re out there. There’s some money to be made but not that much. You’re not going to become a millionaire playing the Nationwide Tour. You really need to be on the PGA Tour to make some money.”
Money isn’t the only obstacle to overcome on the mini-tours.
“I’ve had pet rats in my hotel room,” Wackerly said. “One time I disqualified a guy because he was cheating and when I went to my car in the parking lot all four of my tires were slashed. Another time I drove from North Dakota to Lakeland, Florida to a Hooters Tour event straight through because I had to get there to be eligible for the tour championship.”
Another potential roadblock an aspiring golfer could run into is opponents using performance enhancing drugs. Although drug testing on the PGA Tour was somewhat laughed at when initially brought up a few years ago, Wackerly is sure doping is going on. Although he couldn’t be positive, he estimated anywhere from eight to 10 percent of each PGA Tour tournament field could be using steroids to help recover quicker and hit the ball further.
“It’s definitely out there,” he said. “I mean, a guy 5-foot-6, 130 pounds with the same equipment, and he’s hitting it past me? (Without steroids) it’s not happening.”
Until he makes another run at the PGA, Wackerly will continue to play section and mini-tour events. Last year he was second on the Northern Ohio PGA money list with $10,382 in earnings.
He will also continue to help course owners Jason and Stacy Cope transform Copeland Hills and Castle Shannon into two of the areas premier places to play.
“The owners really want me to play golf, and they think it’s a good way to get the courses on people’s minds,” Wackerly said.
“At Copeland, we’ve doubled our outings, added leagues. Course conditions have improved 300 percent, which I really think brings people back, and we have the best greens around. I want to see these courses succeed, too. You don’t want to start the job and then not finish it. I want to make both of the courses profitable for the Copes before I ever think about leaving here.”
Both professionally and personally, the timing for Wackerly to make a run at the PGA Tour couldn’t be any better.
Wackerly got divorced in early 2007, but is currently engaged to Alex Casi, a 2002 graduate and golf standout at East Palestine High School.
Wackerly said the recent changes in his life are going to certainly be helpful in the future.
“It’s definitely going to make me more relaxed,” he said. “I don’t have someone riding me all the time, and it helps that she plays golf, too, because if we get an afternoon, we can still spend time together. I don’t have to go away from the game to spend time with my significant other. She understands the game, so if I have a bad day on the course, she won’t be in my face about something else that happens at home. I try to do the same thing for her because it works out really well.
“I don’t feel the pressure that every shot is that important. There’s always another shot, another day, another tournament.”
He also has the support from someone who has helped him since the beginning, his father, Paul Wackerly Jr.
“He’s a really good player,” Wackerly said of his dad. “He could’ve made it out there, too, but it was one of those deals where he had to work rather than play. The biggest thing is I always had someone to play with. The hardest thing in the world is to go out and play by yourself. You always want to play with somebody and test yourself. Having someone that knows the game that well, and knows my game specifically, it’s been a lot of help.”
With everything certainly seeming to fall into place, it’s no wonder Wackerly’s swagger and cockiness remain firmly intact.
“I always strike the ball better than anybody I play with,” he said. “I want to get out there on the PGA. It’s the best tour in the world, and I want to see how good I really am.”
E-mail B.J. Lisko at firstname.lastname@example.org