CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Alex Beach played a practice round with Luke Donald, walked off the ninth green and signed autographs.
The club pro from New Jersey is savoring every moment of his first PGA Championship.
And deservedly so. About a year ago at this time, he was in a hospital.
"It took a long time to fight back," Beach said Wednesday, "but to be here a year and some change later, it feels very special."
So while Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson and the rest of golf's glamour names likely will dominate the headlines later in the week, the eve of the season's final major championship belonged to Beach and the 19 other club professionals who scratched their way into the field at Quail Hollow.
"It's kind of the underdog story. I think everyone likes that," Beach said. "The PGA is such a great brand, and they do a lot for the game, and a lot of these guys wouldn't be where they are without a PGA professional, and I'm no different.
"We all had mentors growing up, and people helping us get here," he added. "So it's kind of a nice thank-you to them. Obviously, it's great being in my position where I get to actually play, but it's something to look forward to every year. It's something to keep us working harder at our own game and trying to achieve to get back to this level."
Brian Gaffney in 2015 at Whistling Straits is the only club pro to make the cut in the last five years, and no club pro has finished among the top 20 since Jay Overton tied for 17th in 1988 at Oak Tree.
But they have been an integral part of the PGA Championship since its start in 1916, and perhaps even more so since the tour players broke away in 1969 to form what is now the PGA Tour. They have as much chance of winning as the aging past champions at the Masters or British Open. But the PGA of America can't imagine having its major championship without them for the message it sends.
A club pro's path to the PGA Championship leads through section championships and the PGA Professional National Championship, where the top 20 finishers earn invitations. Omar Uresti won it in June at Oregon's Sunriver Resort, beating Dave McNabb in the second hole of a playoff.
"Those 20 professionals make a great statement for the game of golf in the industry," PGA President Paul Levy said. "As you look at all these great players, they all started out working with a PGA club professional. So it's a platform for our association and the best 20 players in our association to show the world that they play the game at a high level. We think it's a great way to champion what the PGA of America golf professional does and the relationship with the tour."
Beach, a 27-year-old native of Stillwater, Minnesota, who graduated from Nebraska but did not play college golf, is an assistant club pro at Baltusrol , which hosted last year's PGA Championship.
"For me, having not played college golf, I kind of created my own journey to get here," Beach said. "And I think I want to use that to (inspire) other people who maybe didn't follow the typical route — anyone can get here, and it's no different than anything else at life. Put your head down and work hard, and you can achieve it, and this is where I want to be."
Beach qualified to play on his home course but pulled out at the last minute when a blood clot was found in his leg. In each of the previous three years, he failed to qualify by one stroke.
"The anticipation of looking forward to that after missing it for three years, making it, and then the day of, ending up in the hospital, kind of seemed a little unfair," he said. "But it was a little adversity and I think I made the best of it."
Beach won the New Jersey PGA Professional Championship, then finished ninth at Sunriver to earn a spot in Charlotte.
"Everyone has been so welcoming to us that we feel like we are a part of this week, even though we're (taking) a little different route," he said. "It's fun. The whole experience has been incredible. And I'm looking forward to the next step."
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