August 6, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Lincoln Hills pro eager to play with the 'big kids' at PGA Championship

Matt Pesta, left, instructs Andrew Inda, 10, of Beverly Hills, at Lincoln Hills Golf Club before getting his own shot in the PGA Championship. (Todd McInturf / Detroit News)

Birmingham — Matt Pesta stood there and tried to take it all in six years ago at Oakland Hills Country Club, catching glimpses here and there of golf’s biggest stars during breaks from his job giving demo lessons at a GolfTEC tent set up at the course for the 2008 PGA Championship.

All that came flooding back last month as Pesta stood there over a tap-in par putt on the second hole of a six-man playoff at The Dunes Golf & Beach Club in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. That putt secured a spot for Pesta, a 37-year-old pro representing Lincoln Hills Golf Club in Birmingham, in this week’s PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky.

“It’s one of the best feelings that I’ve ever had,” said Pesta, a Walled Lake Central High graduate. “I remember watching those guys back (in 2008), thinking, ‘I just want to be out there.’ And after that putt went in, it was sort of a through-the-looking-glass moment. … It’s just a thrill. I can’t even begin to explain it.”

Still, he was asked almost daily to do just that the last month. The kids in the junior golf program at Lincoln Hills, where he spends 50 hours a week working with 400-plus youngsters and another 10-15 hours giving private lessons, had a few swing thoughts of their own, it turns out.

“They’ve all been talking about it, wishing me good luck, telling me to go beat Tiger Woods down there, asking me if I think I’m gonna win,” said Pesta, who has jokingly waved off several requests for autographed golf balls. “It’s been really neat.”

And when he showed up to practice at the Bob Ackerman Golf Academy in Commerce Township, Ackerman, a mentor to Pesta and a former tour pro who has played in four major championships, made sure to announce that a PGA Championship qualifier had arrived.

“To make everybody stare at me,” Pesta said with a laugh.

That was welcomed, though, as Pesta, who had a brief stint on the Canadian PGA Tour in 2011, tried to prepare for a dramatic change in scenery this week.

“Just trying to play mind games with it, trying to practice with as much of a nervous feeling as I can,” he explained. “I’ve probably played in front of a couple hundred people before, but somebody was telling me the one hole there at Valhalla can hold something like 20,000 spectators. I’ve been trying to visualize that, but .…”

'Best golf of my life'

But honestly, he’s been trying to visualize this most of his life.

“I’ve been passionate about golf for as long as I can remember,” said Pesta, who started playing when he was 9, tagging along with his father, Ken, at the old Bogie Lake Golf Club.

He caddied at Edgewood Country Club, where the pro, Paul Van Loozen, used to give him free lessons and always told him, “Just pay me when you win your first tournament.”

Pesta went on to play at Ferris State before beginning a nomadic career as a PGA pro. He started as an assistant in Newport Beach, California, took a shot at the Hooters Tour (now the NGA Pro Golf Tour) in 2001 and returned to Michigan where he worked at Beacon Hill Golf Course in Commerce Township.

This year, he made the move to Lincoln Hills, a nine-hole municipal course where you can still play for less than $20.

“The echelon of the course really doesn’t matter to me,” Pesta said. “I love to teach and play, and they’ve given me a chance to do exactly what I want to do. So I’m happy to represent a smaller course, and really, it feels like it’s more of an underdog story than maybe somebody who’s at Oakland Hills or someplace like that.”

He says it’s probably no coincidence that the last two years he has “probably played the best golf of my life.” A balance of work and play, finding time to practice on his own between lessons for others, has alleviated some of the pressure he used to feel. And after years of near-misses at qualifying attempts for the U.S. Open and Buick Open, he was due for a breakthrough.

Last year, he got the necessary top-10 finish at the Michigan PGA Championship to advance to the nationals in Bend, Oregon, where he missed the cut by a stroke. This time, after making it to nationals again, he got off to another slow start in the field of 312 golfers.

But he narrowly made the cut, closed with rounds of 73-72 to finish in a six-way tie for 16th place, and then survived the playoff with a group that included former PGA Tour winner Jim McGovern.

Soon after, he was booking hotel reservations with his girlfriend and playing a practice round at Valhalla, this time with his father tagging along.

Valhalla works for him

He’ll tee off at 12:45 p.m. Thursday with Ryo Ishikawa and Rory Sabbatini in the first group of the afternoon session, an hour ahead of the featured pairing with the season’s first three major winners — Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson

Pesta says the Jack Nicklaus-designed course, which previously hosted the PGA twice and the Ryder Cup in 2008, suits his game. (“For a long hitter I’m straight,” he says, “and for a straight hitter I’m long.”) And while it’s his first PGA Tour event of any kind he says he’ll be “disappointed” if he doesn’t make the cut.

Still, no matter what happens this week in Louisville, he says, “I want to keep teaching.”

That won’t change, even if his resume has this summer.

“Well,” he smiled, “I’ve got one student who has played in a major now.”

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