West Michigan's Tom Werkmeister trades storied amateur career for shot on Champions Tour

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Grandville's Tom Werkmeister is enjoying his rookie season on the Champions Tour, even if it's been a struggle at times.

You'd think high-level golf wasn't a good fit for the doubters, the negative thinkers, the easily rattled. And you'd mostly be right.

But you'd also occasionally be wrong. Just ask Tom Werkmeister.

"You'd be surprised," he said, with a chuckle, recently. "I never believed I was good enough, certainly not good enough to compete at a professional level.

"Self-doubt would always seep inside my head."

Werkmeister, a native of Warren and a resident of Grandville in west Michigan, spent years dominating the state-amateur circuit, and he always was just fine with that.

But as he starting inching closer and closer to 50 — the age you need to be to play the PGA Champions Tour — Werkmeister got to thinking, maybe it's time to try something else, a bigger challenge. It was a rare moment of confidence, but also, honestly, he didn't want to wake up in 20 years with any regrets, or what-ifs.

And so one day in 2016, shortly after winning his first Golf Association of Michigan championship, he went home and told wife, Leslie, it was time to take the plunge.

It was time to turn professional.

"When he said that," she said, "you could've knocked me over with a feather.

"I said, 'I think you should. Why wouldn't you?'"

After one more run through his hectic amateur schedule — which included a victory in the 2017 Michigan Amateur, his second time winning the event — he went west to Scottsdale, Ariz., for qualifying school last fall, and he finished tied for 23rd. That didn't earn him full status, but at least gave him access into the weekly Tuesday qualifiers.

After going 0-for-4 in qualifers, he's finished top-four in the past two, earning his way into the last two Champions Tour events. He tied for 74th two weeks ago in Washington, beating just three competitors. But the next week, in Calgary, he tied for 38th.

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Combined with a tie for 52nd in the U.S. Senior Open in July, he's earned barely $20,000, not exactly much to write home about. Then again, it's nothing to suggest he can't be competitive at this level, either. He was, after all, on the first page of the leaderboard early in that U.S. Senior Open.

Werkmeister, who turned 50 in March, will tee it up again Tuesday morning, at Spring Meadows Country Club in Linden (the site of his first Michigan Amateur championship), in an attempt to qualify for the inaugural Ally Challenge at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club in Grand Blanc, which runs Friday through Sunday. He was passed over for a sponsor's exemption, which stung, being a local guy.

"I just need opportunities, I need some chances," Werkmeister said late last month, over the phone from Snoqualmie, Wash., where he was sipping an evening Jim Beam and Coke, hours after playing his way into the Boeing Classic. "I just need chances to compete, and kind of prove myself."

Tom Werkmeister signs autographs at the U.S. Senior Open.

'It's a blessing'

When it comes to amateur golf, few can claim the resume Werkmeister has compiled in the state of Michigan.

He's a six-time GAM player of the year, he won the Michigan Amateur in 2009 and 2017, the Michigan Open in 2013, and also six GAM Mid-Amateur championships, to go with that 2016 GAM championship. In 2014, he was inducted into the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame. Werkmeister is the only man ever to hold the West Michigan "grand slam" — the West Michigan Amateur, the City Match Play, the City Championship and the Kent County Amateur — in the same season, in 2012.

This pro thing, though, is a whole different animal. As he knew it would be.

"Oh, it's been fun, but it's been challenging, you know, and difficult at the same time," said Werkmeister, who, fun fact, also is a very good bowler with a 220 average — he has 12 career holes-in-one, to go with 11 perfect games. "This calendar year has been a challenge, really, just adjusting to life as a professional, trying to get my head squared away, trying to figure it all out.

"But, really, it's a blessing to be able to try something like this."

Werkmeister graduated from Warren Mott and lived in eastern Michigan until moving west at age 20.

At 29, he met Leslie. In the days before Match.com, they met online — in an AOL chatroom. Without knowing it, they lived parallel lives. They grew up 11 miles apart in Metro Detroit. They both had cottages near each other in Gladwin. Tom played college golf at Macomb Commmunity College with the son of Leslie's mother's best friend.

So, despite some skepticism from friends, on both sides, given the nature in which they were introduced — "His friends were like, 'Dude, she's going to take you for everything you have, and my friends were like, 'He's going to cut your head off and leave it in a Burger King Dumpster," Leslie said, with a laugh — they dated for six months, were engaged for six months, then got hitched. They just celebrated 20 years of marriage. 

It's been one interesting emerald anniversary, this new journey.

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Leslie used to caddie for Tom, until she couldn't take his woe-is-me attitude on the course anymore. It wasn't working for him, it wasn't working for her. She's generally a positive person, and he's generally not — at least, not on the course, anyway. It works for him, and it works for her.

"He manages to motivate himself almost through self-deprecation. He kind of beats himself up, but it works for him," said Leslie, who grew up in St. Clair Shores and was living in Mount Clemens when she met Tom. "I can't handle it. I'm like, 'The next shot, the next hole, leave that one behind.

"And he just has to grind it out the way he grinds it out."

These days, she more enjoys watching him play from behind the ropes, and keeping friends and family updated with photos and videos on a Tom Werkmeister Golf Facebook page, as well as a blog at tomwerkmeistergolf.com.

She had a ball following him at the U.S. Senior Open, as well as during his first successful qualifer in Washington

"She'll probably take credit for that," Tom said. "It's the first time she's come out to watch me, and the fact I make it, she's taking the credit."

Tom Werkmeister, with his caddie, Mike Boogaard, who owns The Pines Golf Club in Grandville.

'I've sort of embraced it'

Werkmeister is one of two Michigan Toms debuting on the Champions Tour this year, along with Lake Orion's Tom Gillis, a longtime staple on the PGA Tour.

While Gillis also has gone the qualifying route this year, he has made the most of his two Champions Tour appearances, finishing tied for third in both and earning $250,000 to put him in contention to secure his player's card for the 2019 season.

Gillis received a sponsor's exemption into this week's Ally Challenge, while Werkmeister didn't. Werkmeister holds nothing against Gillis; they are friends. But Werkmeister believes he could've and should've received one of the other three exemptions.

Being passed over, certainly, has motivated him for this week.

"That'd be something of an in-your-face performance for not getting an invitation," Werkmeister said.

Regardless what happens this week, he'll still make the most of the rest of this season, which, despite limited returns so far, has been an unforgettable experience. He's played pro-ams with several interesting dignitaries. He's played competitive rounds with former major champions like Vijay Singh, Bernhard Langer and David Toms. He's played practice rounds with former major champs such as Larry Mize and Corey Pavin. He's posed for a selfie with Tom Kite. And on and on.

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He also has some very supportive sponsors, including JDE Concrete Construction in Grandville and Meijer, as well as Buchanan Insurance, Paul Kamps and Steve DeSchaine.

"It's stressful, a little bit," said Werkmeister, who plays out of Sunnybrook Country Club in Grandville. "I kind of had to fight the demons, in my mind, of disappointing my sponsors. But they kept telling me, 'Are you crazy? Why would you say that?' 

"I'm just kind of trying to eliminate those thoughts in my mind. ... They're all super supportive. My support group is ridiculous. I'm beyond blessed.

"Now, I've sort of embraced it and enjoyed it."

That's quite the positive take for Werkmeister, given his on-the-course demeanor.

Then again, he's a whole other person away from the golf course — much more relaxed, Leslie said.

"It's really weird how different he is," said Leslie, who used to golf a fair amount and got down to a 19 handicap, but prefers watching the game — so much that when she's not on the road with Tom, she'll often call up other golf friends and ask if she can follow them around on the course.

"He's one of those people who expects the worst, but hopes for the best. He's always been like that. But out there (on the course), it's at a different level.

"He pushes himself, he's very hard on himself and it's just what drives him."