The moment the PGA of America announced Bethpage Black would host the 2019 PGA Championship, Rob Labritz circled it in ink on his mental calendar.
“I’ve been priming for this my whole life,’’ Labritz told The Post. “I’m beside the moon just to have this opportunity.’’
The “opportunity” is for a club pro from the metropolitan area to compete in a major championship in his backyard.
Labritz, the golf director at GlenArbor Golf Club in Bedford Hills, is one of six PGA club professionals from the area competing this week at Bethpage Black who qualified by finishing in the top 20 at the PGA Professional Championship two weeks ago, including tournament winner Alex Beach.
Danny Balin from Fresh Meadow Country Club on Long Island, Jason Caron from Mill River Club on Long Island, Brian Mackey from Hollow Brook Golf Club in Cortlandt Manor and Tyler Hall from Upper Montclair Country Club in New Jersey are also in the field.
Each has his own story:
This is Labritz’ sixth PGA Championship but without question the most special. The 47-year old has won three New York State Opens on the Black Course (2008, 2011 and 2016) and estimates he’s played some 70 rounds of tournament golf on it.
“We’re used to having five or 10 people watching us in the New York State Open … and now we get to go play that golf course in an atmosphere where you’re going to feel the energy,’’ Labritz said. “It’s going to be like sitting at Yankee Stadium during a World Series. The energy you’re going to feel is just awesome.’’
Labritz, who has missed the cut at his last four PGAs after making it in 2010, hopes his local knowledge will play into this week being the most special of all.
“I want to feel Bethpage in that atmosphere,’’ he said. “I’ve played it with no atmosphere when the stands were going up for the U.S. Open. But to actually now be there where it’s going to be after Tiger Woods won the Masters, the buzz is going to be ridiculous and I get to be a part of this. It’s going to off the charts. You can’t wipe this frickin’ smile off my face.’’
All six times Balin has been eligible to play in the PGA Professional Championship he’s made the top 20 to get into the PGA Championship.
Balin, like Labritz, has a rich history on the Black, having won the 2012 and 2013 state opens on the venerable track.“It’s my favorite golf course in the world,’’ Balin, 37, said. “It’s the mecca of public golf, a facility that welcomes anybody that plays golf no matter their race, ethnicity, their color, their age, their handicap, anything.’’
Balin has never made a PGA Championship cut in his previous five tries.
“Do I think this is my best chance? Absolutely, because I’m familiar with the golf course,’’ he said. “Whether my golf game shows up this week or not, that is something that I don’t know.”
This is Beach’s second major, having played in the 2017 PGA at Quail Hollow, when he missed the cut. But as the low man in the PGA Professionals Championship two weeks ago in South Carolina, Beach believes the win could carry him this week, thanks to a clearer idea of how to gauge his responsibilities.
Beach, 28, played Bethpage for the first time last Wednesday and that happened to be the day Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were practicing.
“Part of being in this position is playing in tournaments with those guys, and that’s kind of what I want to do,” he said. “I want to put my game up against theirs and see how I do. As a golf fan, it’s a cool feeling just thinking that in the smallest way possible, I’ve earned the right to play in the same event as these guys.’’
Caron, in his fifth season at Mill River, has an interesting history at Bethpage Black. His only other major is the 2002 U.S. Open, when he finished tied for 30th.
Caron, 44, played on the PGA Tour in 2000 and 2003 and in 2001, 2002 and from 2004 to 2008 he played on the Web.com Tour. He got into the ’02 U.S. Open field through sectional qualifying.“I’m playing really well right now,’’ he said. “I feel like I can make the cut. Now, how well I can play on the weekend? I don’t know. Getting to the weekend is the first part. I think if I can stay in the moment and enjoy myself and take care of what I’m supposed to do out there, you never know.’’
Mackey, 33, is in his first season as a head pro. He recalls sleeping in the parking lot with some college buddies back in the day to get a tee time at the Black Course and said he’s played it about a dozen times.
“This is why you practice, this is why you play,’’ he said. “I am definitely nervous. I have people saying to me, ‘The hole is still the same diameter and it’s just golf.’ And it is, it’s true. But there’s definitely going to be a ton of butterflies knowing that for the longest time I’ve been watching these events on TV and talking about this stuff with my dad and now actually we’re going to be there participating … there’s a lot of emotion.’’