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Michigan's Tom Gillis, now 50, takes aim at Champions Tour

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Lake Orion's Tom Gillis is about to embark on his Champions Tour career.

Beers out by the lake Sunday, presents from the wife and kids Monday.

And back on the road again Tuesday.

Tom Gillis turned 50 on Monday, not the most welcome day in the lives of many — but long an anticipated one for the Lake Orion professional golfer, whose new phase of his career finally has reached the first tee.

Gillis is now eligible for the PGA Champions Tour, for players 50 and older, after years of grinding it out on the PGA Tour. There, he usually was the old guy, like in 2015, when a 46-year-old Gillis took a 21-year-old named Jordan Spieth to a playoff at the John Deere Classic. Now, he'll be the young buck.

"Yeah, I'm excited," Gillis said on his birthday. "I think I'm always leery when I've gotta leave my family. I've been home for two years now, well almost two years, so that's a little bit of a drawback. That'll be the hardest thing.

"But I miss competing. That's pretty much what I was born to do.

"I missed the action of it."

Gillis, a married father of two, is off to Manhattan, Kansas, to play a tournament on the development Adams Pro Tour — the Colbert Charity Classic — as a tuneup before attempting to make his Champions debut early next month.

His first attempt at a Champions event will be the 3M Championship at TPC Twin Cities in Blaine, Minn., from Aug. 3-5. He'll have to participate in a Tuesday qualifier, unless he receives a sponsor's exemption.

He has an unfortunate birthday — July, smack dab in the middle of the season's schedule — so he'll be up against the clock to try to earn enough money to secure full-time Champions status for next season. The fallback if he comes up short: Champions qualifying school in the fall.

"For me," said Gillis, "I don't have much of a season left."

Tom Gillis works out at Xceleration Fitness in Auburn Hills earlier this month, as he gets into shape for his Champions Tour debut.

'Nowhere to go'

The last two years have been, let's just say, interesting for Gillis, who last was a full-time member on the PGA Tour in 2016, and last had much of an impact on the Tour in 2015, when he came close to his first victory — before falling to Spieth in a playoff at the John Deere Classic. That still earned him the largest payday of his career, $507,600, and a spot in the following week's British Open.

But a lost 2016 season, one that included shoulder and recurring wrist injuries, left him without a PGA Tour card, and back home in 2017 on a full-time basis for the first time in decades.

It wasn't the easiest transition, to be sure.

"Nowhere to go," Gillis said, laughing. "On Tour, you're always in a hurry — the next stop, they kept running together.

"The adjustment was there was nowhere to go. I just had to sit and chill and get used to this.

"I just kept assuming we had another tournament coming. That's all we've done for 28 years.

"I still don't know if I'm even comfortable now."

It hasn't been all bad, of course. In fact, life has been quite good. He's been home to see his kids, Trevor, 12, and Aubrey, 10, grow up, and attend their football, basketball and volleyball games.

And he's gotten to be a full-time husband, again, to Jennifer.

"It was hard to figure out how to work him into my life," Jennifer said, laughing. "Oh, he actually did the dishes. He's grilling all the time. This is kind of cool. I've never had this much help before."

He's gotten to enjoy life on the lake, fishing.

And he's had plenty of time to boost his following via his always-snarky Twitter account (@tcgillis).

He's filled other holes in his time with corporate work for one of his sponsors, Midland's Dow Chemical Co., and even spent a year coaching high school golf at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep. He also was inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame.

But, lately, as July 16 has slowly crept closer and closer, his focus has turned back to his game, starting in the winter when he would spend three days a week at Xceleration Fitness in Auburn Hills.

"Leaning out and trying to get stronger, so I can avoid injuries from repetitive motions," Gillis said. "Of late, it's been less gym and more practice."

A member at Indianwood Golf and Country Club in Lake Orion, he said his game is in good shape. He's hitting it longer than ever before — up around 290 yards off the tee — and his iron game, often a weakness on the PGA Tour, especially in the later years, is getting crisp.

He showed off his skills in June at the Michigan Open at The Bear at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, opening with a 69 and finishing in third place.

In December, at the Jamaican Open — which he won in 1993, for one of his five notable career wins — he finished tied for 17th.

That's pretty much all the competitive golf he's played lately, hence the mini-tour tuneup this week.

"It's just about playing enough tournament golf and getting back into the flow," Gillis said. "I feel happy with everything, currently.

"But it's not gonna be easy. I know that. Those (Champions) guys are shooting low numbers every week. This is tournament golf, it's always going to be difficult, it doesn't matter where you're at."

Gillis has been a touring golf professional since 1990, after leaving Oakland Community College. He's the ultimate grinder, having played on every tour you can think of — big, small, you name it, including a five-year stint on the European Tour in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as well as several, spread-out stints of holding exempt staus on the PGA Tour — and in at least 26 countries around the globe.

Among Gillis' five professional victories include one on what now is the Tour, the Waterloo Open in Iowa in 1992, the Jamaican Open in 1993, and two Michigan Opens (1994 and 2008).

Tom Gillis has two runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour.

'Smooth transition'

Gillis had 10 top-10s in 188 tournaments on the PGA Tour (he was fully exempt in eight seasons, first in 2013, last in 2016). Those included one other close call, a runner-up finish at The Honda Classic in 2012, when he tied with Tiger Woods, two strokes behind Rory McIlroy.

The hope, now, is he can break through into the winner's circle on the Champions circuit, where many newly turned 50-year-olds have found success over the years, including many who didn't have banner PGA Tour careers. Names that come to mind include Jim Dent and Allen Doyle. Neither ever won on the PGA Tour, but Dent won 12 Champions tournaments, and Doyle 11.

"I mean, typically, guys that have stayed exempt close to 50 years have traditionally done well, they've adjusted well, and that's what I'm hoping for," said Gillis, whose PGA Tour career saw him earn more than $5 million in prize money, to go with another $700,000-plus on the Tour.

"I'm hoping for a smooth transition."

Said Jennifer: "I'm really excited. It feels like we've been waiting forever (for it) to happen. Now he's gonna be the young guy out there kicking everybody's butt."

There are some nice differences with the Champions, as opposed to the PGA.

Most tournaments, outside of the majors, are three rounds instead of four. That's nice on two fronts. One, there's no cut, so if you're in the tournament, you're collecting a paycheck. The other: Less wear and tear. Gillis found later in his PGA Tour career, his body would break down as the weekend progressed.

"I didn't feel the same on Sunday as I did on Thursday," he said. "I was stiffer. I didn't move as well."

Champions courses usually are substantially shorter, too, and players have the option to take a cart. Gillis said he plans to continue walking, unless he's faced with a very hilly course, or the temperatures are unbearable.

There are 12 official Champions tournaments remaining on the 2018 schedule, including the inaugural Ally Challenge at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club in Grand Blanc in September. Gillis is at the top of the list of players likely to draw sponsor's exemptions into that one, given he's the hometown boy.

Of course, Gillis isn't a boy anymore.

His new life begins at 50.

Tom Gillis, left, congratulates Jordan Spieth after their John Deere playoff in 2015.