One of the advantages of being around the Michigan golf scene for quite awhile is being able to trace the arc of a player’s career. Case in point occurred last weekend watching 43-year-old Michigan native Tom Gillis’s strong and inspiring play at the Honda Classic where he finished tied for second place and earned $501,600—his biggest check of his 22-year pro career.
I remember first seeing Gillis as a teenager working at Indianwood Golf & CC for head pro Dave Zink, setting up members’ carts and occasionally serving as a caddie. A few years later in 1990, I covered the rainy finals of the Michigan Amateur and watched Gillis, then 21 and with plenty of game but somewhat lacking in course management skills, lose to gallery favorite and former champion Steve Maddalena of Jackson. It was a tough loss for Gillis because in many ways he was the better ball-striker. But Maddalena was more experienced and composed and that made all of the difference. Undaunted, Gillis turned pro later that year.
Gillis bounced around the mini-tour circuits for a few years and then had a breakthrough in 1994. That year he won the Jamaican Open and also the Michigan Open at The Bear. At The Bear, I recall following him during his last round when he held the lead and was in the final group. What struck me during that final round—as it did scribe Jack Berry who shared a media cart with me—was the brisk, unfettered pace of Gillis’s play. With a confident bounce to his step, he’d promptly peg his tee-ball, take a few waggles and hit it. No fuss, no angst and no belabored pre-shot routines. It was refreshing to witness and made Gillis’s title all the more impressive.
From 1998 to 2002, Gillis played on the European Tour where he had five career Top-10 finishes and with a best T-3 finish in 2000 at the Belagom Open. In 2001, Gillis suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome which reduced his playing time to only six events.
Finally in the fall of 2002, Gillis earned his first PGA Tour card by finishing T-21 at Q School finals. The next year and in spite of not getting into the early season West Coast events, Gillis had a decent rookie season with five Top-25 finishes. Due to a broken wrist, Gillis didn’t play in a PGA Tour event in 2004. He did regain his Tour card for 2005 when he finished T-26 at the previous Q School finals. However, he endured another tough season in 2005, making the cut in only 12 of 28 events but with a season best T-12 finish at the Buick Invitational, taking home $83k.
For the next four years, Gillis played on the Nationwide Tour and competed in other mini-tour events. Last week, he said in an interview that he almost called it quits as a Tour player after a disappointing 2006 season and failing at Q School. “Well, geez, I’m 38 now, what am I going to do. So I went back to Michigan for a few months, thought it over. Job market wasn’t very good. Didn’t have a whole lot to offer them to be quite honest with you. So I thought, geez, I’d better turn around and go back out there and see if I have anything left.” That he did as he held his own on the Nationwide Tour the next few years.
He secured his card for the 2010 PGA Tour with an outstanding Nationwide season in 2009 when he won the Nationwide Tour Players Cup, earning $102K.
The Players Cup win was special for Gillis in another poignant way. He had played the entire week with calmness and perspective due to the news of a tragic auto accident the week before that claimed the life of Beth Smith, the wife of his friend and fellow Nationwide player Chris Smith, that also seriously injured two of their children. At the trophy ceremony, Gillis said, “It puts things in perspective. I was in shock. All week long I said I wasn’t going to let one shot bother me.” A father of two now living in Jupiter, FL, Gillis added, “It’s amazing how life can change at a moment’s notice.” It could be argued that since that pivotal tournament Gillis has had his feet firmly on the ground in the PGA Tour and has never looked back.
Competing in 28 events in 2010, Gillis finished the season in the 76th spot on the money list, earning $1.2 million. Due to some injuries, last year was a fall-off for Gillis but he still maintained his card, grabbing the 120th money spot while earning $814K.
Fast forward to last week. Coming off a dismal West Coast swing where he only made one cut out of five starts, Gillis was still struggling with shaft issues when the Tour arrived in south Florida, his native turf. A graphite user since 1999 to ease the stress on his wrists, Gillis had switched to steel on the West Coast and the change didn’t take root. “So now I’m out there swinging steel and I was changing grips on the putter and just a lot of stuff was going on,” said Gillis in a post-round interview at the Honda.
Finally, in the middle of a practice round last Tuesday he switched back to graphite and the results were immediate. ”I just flushed it the last nine holes,” said Gillis who lives only a few miles from PGA National. “So as soon as I got those old shafts in my hands, and then this wind started to blow, I could hit all the shots again. I could shape the ball and do everything I wanted to do.”
Along with a hot putter and an underreported astute knowledge of the course, Gillis put together rounds of 68-64-69-69, ten under par. When he made a 22-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to tie Tiger Woods for second, Gillis broke out in big smile. It was a perfect ending to a memorable week.
With his victory, Rory McIlroy reached the summit of the world golf ranking. But in Michigan and to his many followers, Gillis was the no. 1 story of the week.
photo courtesy of PGA Tour