THE PGA TOUR WOULD BECOME THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE FOR A YOUNG PROFESSIONAL GOLFER. I WAS FORTUNATE FOR THE MANY YEARS OF MEMORIES & FRIENDSHIPS MADE ALONG THE WAY.
Donnie Hammond, a former 2-time PGA Tour winner, spent the majority of his life competing against the greatest golfers in the world. Playing the PGA Tour was his dream, which began at the age of 13, playing alongside his Dad in Maryland.
PLAYING IN THE PGA TOUR WAS A DREAM OF MINE SINCE THE AGE OF 13 AFTER MANY YEARS OF SIMULATION ON A THOUSAND RANGES AND PUTTING GREENS AROUND MARYLAND AND FLORIDA
In the summer of ‘70 the game of golf took quite a hold of me. Tagging along with my Dad we would play 9 at the Westminster, Maryland college course then go watch the Baltimore Colts practice adjacent to the muni. Watching Johnny Unitas, big John Mackey and the rest of the squad coached by the legend Don Shula was a lesson in discipline and teamwork. After practice we would hang out with the Shula kids and throw the pigskin around with coach joining a few times. Being vertically challenged as a youngster playing baseball and football, golf quickly became the one sport where I had a fighting chance.
Luckily I had three good friends that were to join me year round on the hilly 9 hole VFW Country Club just on the outskirts of Frederick, Maryland. Some of the best greens in the state and every lie you could imagine helped us round out our games.
We rolled into the University of Maryland course our sophomore year and managed to win the State Championship, led by my 3rd place finish. With the exhausting help from both of my parents I was able to play a very competitive schedule throughout the state during the summers. Jimmy Glass was a very cool and nifty player near Baltimore and talked me into visiting Jacksonville University where he would attend. After visiting I absolutely loved the school, the team and the coach. And it seemed to be a little warmer than Maryland... could’ve just been my imagination though.
I still remember my dads last words before he dropped me off at the steps of the dorms before heading back to Frederick - "We’ve done just about everything we can do for you son, the rest is up to you." I’ve remembered that moment so many times when facing an important and serious decision.
Our 70 year old golf coach Rollie Rourke was an incredible athlete in his day excelling in basketball. He ran a very organized program where the top 6-8 players could always be challenged by the lower 8 every week. If you wanted to be on the traveling squad and keep your scholarship you had to maintain consistency. I loved the school and my teammates but I was ready to make a big move and went to inform coach of my intention of transferring to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University to become a corporate or airline pilot. He seemed very surprised and shook his head slowly a few times before deliberately explaining to me that I may very well have the talent to compete with anyone in the world with total dedication and a little luck. He also put the thought in my head about playing the PGA Tour one day and flying my own plane just like Arnie ⛱. "What do think about me finding you a little more scholarship money and we give this idea another year to consider," he said. If someone with the experience of Coach Rourke had that much confidence in me, I would decide to finish at JU and see where I could go with the game. I had a funny feeling leaving his office that day, my life just took a fork in the road. Every year at the TPC Championship on the putting green or the range I would remind Coach with a smile and a hug why I was here. I would go on to win 6 or 7 college events peaking at the conference championships where our team would dominate and I would win the individual honors by 6 shots. It was without a doubt four great years of my life.
The JC Goosie mini tour in Orlando, Florida was the place to assess your game and see if you had the talent to move on to the big leagues, namely the PGA Tour. Some of the greatest characters the game has ever seen were playing these events and this was like grad school. You were pretty much forced into quick results or staring a new job squarely in the face. I really wasn’t excited about getting my Masters degree and becoming a marriage counselor so I got real serious. I won my second event, capturing $4,500 and more importantly a ton of confidence. I played with the King of the mini’s, Larry Mowry, the third week and we became instant friends. He was so helpful to many of the young guys and went on to a very successful career on the Champions Tour winning a major along the way. A few missed Q schools came and went before I really got it together at the 1982 Tour school at TPC Sawgrass. I basically went unconscious for the week shooting 13 under par and winning by a still record 14 strokes. 1983 was the first year of the all exempt tour so I would be in virtually every event except the Majors. One dream was fulfilled.
THE PGA TOUR
Playing the PGA Tour was the dream of mine since the age of 13 after many years of simulation on a thousand ranges and putting greens around Maryland and Florida. Luckily my first year was the start of the all exempt Tour which allowed the top 125 money leaders to stay exempt. This was the brainchild of long time player and broadcaster Gary McCord who I was paired with the first two days of the Tour School and became good friends. Gary also had a big impact on my game later on in the story. After three years of learning and barely keeping my card, the breakthrough came at the ‘86 Bob Hope Desert Classic.
Tied with John Cook after 90 holes at 25 under par, I managed to coax a 14 footer in on the first playoff hole at Bermuda Dunes in Palm Desert to win the event. Within seconds I realized one dream was fulfilled and another one was close, playing in The Masters. In Augusta after a long day of practice and hitting a few more putts before dinner a pro walked off the ninth green heading for the 10th tee. Arnold Palmer asks if I would like to join him for the back nine! Arnie and I played a leisurely nine where he showed me the lines off every tee and what to look for with the hole locations for every day. After finding myself in second place a shot back entering the final day I realized how important that info would become. That Sunday afternoon was the most exciting experience I’ve ever had on a golf course as Jack Nicklaus went on to win his 6th green jacket in spectacular fashion. I managed a disappointing 74, tying for 11th but still earning a return for the next year.
Fast forward a few years to the summer of ‘89, Gary McCord, working as a brilliant CBS is watching me hit the biggest draw on the range at Memphis. After 3 days of instruction we completely retooled backswing and ball flight with the most efficient and repeatable swing I could muster.
I go on to win the ‘89 Texas Open by 7 strokes in October (2nd lowest 72 hole score in history), finish solo 2nd the next week at Disney, 5th at the Tour Championship and 4th at the Kapalua Invitational. I finished the year 20th on the money list and PGA Tour player of the month for October.
Over the course of playing the Tour for 20 some years and eventually the Champions Tour I was able to visit many countries and make great friends that love the game. Some of favorite courses overseas would be Royal Melbourne, Muirfield, Kings course in Morocco, St. Andrews and Turnberry just to name a few. All in all it was a great way to spend most of your life, competing against the greatest golfers in the world and even enjoying a tad bit of success.
The love of my life saw me playing at TPC Sawgrass one year before we even met, and with the distance between us I thought I was cute. Now that I think about it that had to be my best round ever, not really sure what I shot.