Former Grand Strand resident Kris Blanks is an exempt member of the PGA Tour.
But because he has missed most of the past 18 months because of a left shoulder injury, he is competing this year on a medical extension that has diminished his status, and he’s having difficulty getting into tournaments.
Feeling healthy for a change and excited about his game a month ago, he had moved up to the first alternate spot at the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio. But he wanted to make sure he would compete that week, so he gave up that spot to enter the Web.com Tour’s Chitimacha Louisiana Open in Broussard, La.
A 9-under-par 62 in the final round at Le Triomphe Country Club earned Blanks a win, $99,000 and potentially a decision to make near the end of the 2013-14 season.
First, about the win.
“I had been healthy for a change for a month and a half before that,” Blanks said. “I had really started to amp up my practices and had been playing more here at home. I was playing so good I just needed to play in something. I didn’t want to wait on the first tee for someone to get the flu or something and end up not playing in anything.
“I’ve been happy with the changes I’ve been making to my swing, I just needed to go see it. That’s why I made the decision to play in Louisiana and it turned out to be a good one.”
It was Blanks’ first win since the 2008 Bank of America Open near Chicago on the Web.com Tour. Playing on the PGA Tour can be lucrative, but it’s difficult to win.
“It had been six years since I won anything,” Blanks said. “You wonder if you’re ever going to do it again.”
The 62 tied a career low in a Web.com or PGA Tour event, both in aggregate score and against par. His winning score was a 14-under 270. He finished 3 hours and 20 minutes before the 54-hole leader but his score held up, and he made up a seven-shot deficit through 54 holes, which is the largest on the Web.com Tour in four years.
“Basically I won the tournament with one good round,” Blanks said. “I played great the first three days and couldn’t make any [putts].”
Blanks used three different putters during the tournament, including a putter in the final round he had never used before.
The $99,000 factors into a decision Blanks may eventually have to make.
He is ninth on the Web.com Tour money list despite playing in just that one event. The top 25 at the end of the year are guaranteed exempt status on the PGA Tour, though it could be anywhere from 1-50 depending on how they perform in the four-event season-ending playoff series.
Blanks’ status through his medical extension puts him at the back of the 2013 Web.com Tour playoff graduates, so he’s essentially 51st among those in the Web.com qualifier category. Hence he’s having difficulty getting into events.
Blanks began the 2013-14 season with 20 events to earn $595,483 in order to keep his card for the 2014-15 season.
He has played in five events this season – two in 2013 and three in 2014 – and missed the cut in four events with rounds between 69 and 78 and withdrew from the McGladrey Classic following an opening 74.
Blanks said he has signed up for every full-field PGA Tour event this year. But he has discovered there are more players with PGA Tour status attempting to play each week under the tour’s new wraparound schedule that began last October and qualifying process that eliminated direct qualification for the PGA Tour through the qualifying tournament beginning with the 2013 Q-School.
“You get in some tournaments and you don’t get in some,” Blanks said. “With the new season it seems like a lot of guys are playing more than they have in the past. I’m fully exempt on the PGA Tour so I can’t complain too much. The frustration level is just from not having access to starts. There was no way for the tour to know with the new system how the categories would play out.”
Blanks is in the field for this week’s $6.8 million Zurich Classic of New Orleans, but he’s not in the Wells Fargo Championship or The Players Championship the next two weeks.
Following that, he said he expects to get into the HP Byron Nelson Championship from May 15-18, but not the two events that follow – the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial and Memorial Tournament. He’ll attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open that will be held two weeks after that.
“It’s tough to get any kind of momentum going,” he said.
During the week of the Wells Fargo from May 1-4, Blanks plans to play in a $650,000 Web.com Tour event in Valdosta, Ga.
“Unfortunately you feel you’re pushing some young player out by going to play the Web.com, but I have to play somewhere too,” Blanks said. “I have to get four competitive rounds in and try to build on something. I take the approach I’ve earned the right to play in the event based on my years on tour, so I try not to feel too bad about it.”
As a PGA Tour member, Blanks can’t forego a PGA Tour start to play in Web.com Tour event the same week, and he knows if he’s eligible for a PGA Tour field by the 5 p.m. registration deadline the Friday before the tournament.
Blanks said his category reshuffles periodically based on money earned, “but if you’re not in any tournaments you can’t earn any money,” he said. He doesn’t believe he’ll play in the full 20 events allowed by the medical extension this season and expects to “wind up being in the same category next year having so many starts to earn “x” amount of dollars.”
That’s unless he qualifies for the 2014-15 PGA Tour through the Web.com Tour and its playoffs. He may earn enough money in his limited Web.com starts to qualify.
“At some point with five or six events to go in season, I might try to petition the tour to allow me to play out there,” Blanks said. “Right now I’m just trying to be ready for wherever my next start might be and try to win more golf tournaments.”
He’s itching to play because his body feels so good. He had surgery in late February 2013 during which doctors repaired scar tissue and shaved a bone to free movement.
“I wasn’t healthy until two months ago as far as being ready to go out and play,” said Blanks, who said he has worked some with Houston instructor Mark Miller. “It’s been good just to be healthy and not try to nurse an injury. I’m 41 years old so I’m not 100 percent. I’m about 80 to 85 percent, and I think that’s about all I can hope for after playing golf for 30 years.
“I’m swinging freely so the shoulder isn’t giving me any discomfort at all so hopefully those issues are behind me.”
Blanks lived on the Strand from 1996-2002 and has been a member of the PGA Tour since his rookie year of 2009. He finished 65th on the 2011 money list with $1.35 million earned and six top-12 finishes in the final five months of the season, including a playoff loss at the RBC Canadian Open.
The shoulder forced him to shut down his 2012 season in July after 23 starts. With only four starts in 2013 on a medical extension to earn $257,451 and retain his card, Blanks entered the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament late last year and tied for fourth despite the injury to earn 2013 playing privileges.
He missed the cut in his only start of 2013 in the Waste Management Phoenix Open in early February, and the 2013 status is tied into his medical extension. Blanks lost his mother, Mary, earlier this month at the age of 64 to a combination of illnesses.
New First Tee leader
Ellen Gregory has been named the Executive Director of the Carol S. Petrea Youth Golf Foundation of Shallotte, N.C. It oversees the First Tee chapters of Brunswick County and the Grand Strand, which encompasses Horry and Georgetown counties.
Gregory, a resident of Wilmington, has more than 30 years of business and nonprofit experience and will be will responsible for managing the foundation’s four area First Tee programs and the Carolinas Leadership Academy located on the campus of The First Tee of Brunswick County in Shallotte. The others chapters are the Cape Fear Region and Eastern North Carolina.
The foundation, named after a co-founder of the First Tee of Brunswick County, aims to improve the lives and character of youth using the game of golf as a vehicle.
Gregory has been a productive volunteer at The First Tee of the Cape Fear Region and has served on the foundation board of directors. She spent more than 30 years advising clients through marketing research while also volunteering and taking leadership roles in various business and golf-related associations.
Of her new position, Gregory said in a release: “It’s my dream job … getting to work with children in the context of one of the nation’s most successful youth development programs while interacting with our outstanding local professional staff and a dedicated cadre of volunteers. I’m looking forward to many years of successful collaboration.”
Watson a contributor
The First Tee of Brunswick County has a Tom Watson signature practice facility that includes a wide two-tiered driving range that is 375 yards deep, nine TifDwarf Bermudagrass target greens and additional tee boxes, and two practice putting greens are lighted.
It was built by Watson’s design associate Bob Gibbons in 2010-11, and Watson spoke about the practice facility while in Hilton Head Island this past week at the RBC Heritage presented by Boeing in Hilton Head Island.
“He worked very hard in getting that put together,” Watson said. “Gibbons is a North Carolinian. He had contacts and I said, ‘Bob, you carry the ball here.’ So I let him have it.”
Watson is heavily involved in a First Tee chapter in his hometown of Kansas City. “We have about 2,200 kids we touch in Kansas City, and it’s making a dent,” Watson said. “I think there are more and more kids playing golf because of it. That’s what we’re trying to do, get kids out on the golf course.”
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.