Disappointment sticks with Michigan's Gillis over near win

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Tom Gillis makes par on the first playoff hole at the John Deere Classic. He would lose the tournament on the second  playoff hole.

Late Monday night, in Scotland, Tom Gillis found himself alone for the first time since he came oh so close to his first PGA Tour win.

He tried not to, but he couldn't help himself.

He replayed in his head the shots that could've made him a first-time winner at the age of 46.

"It's human nature," Gillis said over the phone Tuesday, walking with his wife, Jenny, down the 17th fairway at St. Andrews, site of this week's British Open.

"If I would've just two-putted 16, or if I would've just gotten up and down from 35 yards on 17, it would've been a whole different story."

As it was, Gillis shot the Sunday round of his life – 7-under 64 – to end regulation play tied for first in the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Illinois, earning a playoff bid with Jordan Spieth, the No. 2-ranked player in the world and the winner of the season's first two major championships.

Gillis entered last week ranked No. 643.

Spieth won on the second playoff hole, when Gillis, the Pontiac native and Lake Orion resident, found trouble off the trees and hooked a punch-shot approach into water.

"I felt like saying to Jordan, 'Come on, man, you're gonna win 30, 40, 50 of these,'" Gillis said, chuckling. '"Give the old guy just one!'"

For Spieth, 21, it was his fourth win of the year, and it came right before he tries to do what even Tiger Woods has never done – win the first three legs of the Grand Slam in a single year.

For Gillis, 46, it was heartbreak in that he didn't get that win, but it still was a game-changer.

He earned the largest payday of his career – $507,600 – and a seat on a private charter from Illinois to St. Andrews. It also earned Gillis his first appearance in the British Open since 2008.

Tom Gillis congratulates Jordan Spieth after Spieth's win Sunday.

About 60 to 70 people – golfers, caddies, friends – were on that charter jet, and most had been pulling for Gillis, who could've been the oldest first-time winner on Tour in 20 years and just the third Michigan native to win on Tour since the mid-1980s.

"I didn't drink any alcohol. I knew I would've been wrecked all week. I was beat up, pretty tired," Gillis said. "It was a whirlwind when I finished. They whisked us away. It was just crazy. From the time I finished the playoff, I was probably on the plane within 1 hour and 15 minutes."

Gillis has had a pretty crazy year.

Last fall, he won back his PGA Tour card, but then suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery in November. He came back in January, but three missed cuts later, it was clear he needed more rest.

So he made the tough decision to take three months off. It was a tough decision because Gillis knew he needed to play well to keep his PGA Tour card, and every event matters.

"This was a process," he said.

His first event back, he made the cut. Same in the second. Same in the third. He was shooting good opening and second rounds, but would fade on the weekend. He still was getting his strength back after all that time off.

He missed the cut at The Greenbrier two weeks ago, then came out guns blazing at the John Deere, firing a first-round 66, second-round 65, and third-round 69. He started the final round four strokes behind Spieth, but made that up in a hurry with six front-nine birdies.

Gillis spent most of Sunday in first place, and was all over the CBS coverage – No. 643 trying to hold off world No. 2, world No. 25 (Zach Johnson) and the winner of The Greenbrier (Danny Lee).

"You always wonder as you get older every year, 'Can you still handle the moment?'" Gillis said. "You think you can, but a little of you wonders. That answered a lot of questions, which is a good thing."

Tom Gillis plays a British Open practice round on Tuesday at St. Andrews.

Now, Gillis is preparing for the British Open, the fifth major he's qualified for since turning professional in 1990. He's made two cuts, tying for 70th at the 2002 U.S. Open and tying for 58th at the 2008 British Open. He's no stranger to St. Andrews either, having played some Dunhill Links Championships there.

He feels he has the game to contend this week, though he acknowledged sometimes luck is involved at the British Open – depending on the wind, which sometimes roars early and is calm late, and sometimes is calm early and roars late.

The tee times could make all the difference.

Gillis tees off at 3:51 p.m. local time Thursday, and 9:50 a.m. local time Friday.

"I know I am capable of this," Gillis said, while walking with Jenny to have a lunch at the Old Course Hotel with Carl Pettersson and his wife. "My energy level is good right now. I thought I'd feel worse.

"If my energy stays where it is, and I think it will, then I think I've got a shot."