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Ben Cook deserved the Michigan PGA Professional Championship trophy. Nobody's strongly disputing that.

But because of an obscure rule that nobody in state golf circles can ever remember being cited before, Cook was denied the prestigious hardware last August, despite finishing the three-day tournament with the best score.

Let's just say, it's all worked out in the end.

"Definitely," he said with a laugh the other day. "It's definitely made up for it."

Cook's performance in the Michigan PGA couldn't deny him a spot in the PGA Professional Championship in Bluffton, S.C., where earlier this month he finished tied for fourth — easily good enough to earn an invitation to his first-ever major championship, this week's PGA Championship at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, N.Y.

Cook, a native of Caledonia, Mich., and an alumnus of South Christian High School in Grand Rapids and Ferris State University, is the lone player from Michigan among the 156 in the field for the season's second major. 

He tees off at 6:45 a.m. Thursday on the 10th hole, with Scott Piercy and Brian Gay — a far cry from his time grinding on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica.

"Aww, man, forever," Cook said Sunday night in an interview with The Detroit News, after a quick nine holes and a late dinner, when asked how long he's been dreaming of this moment. "It's funny, you go into the locker room, and two lockers down is John Daly's, one more is Jason Day's. Rickie Fowler is right behind me. It's just nuts.

"Yeah, I will be (nervous) the first time i see those guys, for sure (plus his favorite, Phil Mickelson). At the same time I think i earned it. I think I'll fit right in.

"It's finally becoming real."

Controversial finish

It's a far cry from the feeling he had last August, when as he was practicing on the range before Round 2 at Flint Golf Club, a Michigan PGA official approached him. Turns out, someone had spotted Cook's name high up on the leaderboard after an opening-round 66 and had done some digging in the bylaws. That person discovered a rule that to be eligible to win the Michigan PGA Championship, you needed to have 60 days as an accredited PGA professional at a golf course in Michigan.

Cook had only been at Cascade Hills Country Club in Grand Rapids for about a month.

Cook was rightly confused — the national PGA chapter certainly didn't have a problem accepting his entrance fee — but he played on, having been told that he could still compete for the prize money and an invitation to the national tournament.

He ended up finishing 10 under, tops in the field, and took home the first-place check of $6,700, which was nice. But the trophy, oddly, went to Lee Houtteman, who finished a stroke back at 9 under.

Nobody at the Michigan PGA could pinpoint to The News last year when the rule was installed, or if it had ever been brought out and cited. It's also now under review. The purpose, still, is clear: To prevent "carpet-bagger" champions, though the spirit of the rule certainly didn't apply to Cook, a longtime Michigan resident outside of brief stints in Ohio, where he landed an assistant club-professional job right out of college, and Florida, where he went to qualify for a season on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica.

Cook gladly took the money — he doesn't make much, after all — and the trip to the national tournament, and shrugged it off.

It wasn't until weeks later that he learned the "winner" also was going to get a sponsor's exemption into Detroit's inaugural PGA Tour tournament, the Rocket Mortgage Classic, set for this June at Detroit Golf Club. That goes to Houtteman, while Cook will have to Monday qualify, unless Quicken Loans does him a solid.

"That just kind of sucks to miss out on the Tour event," Cook said. "Especially the first time coming back to Michigan."

Glass-half-full, now. You're at the PGA.

Cook, who graduated from Ferris in 2017, has yet to play a regular PGA Tour event. The most fans he's ever played in front of, he figures, is 200 tops, in Mexico. Majors at Bethpage Black have drawn some of the largest crowds in golf history.

Not that there figures to be too many folks watching his first tee shot Thursday.

As if the tee time isn't early enough, he has to catch a shuttle to the 10th tee, and be on the shuttle no later than 6:20. That's going to make for a sick wakeup call, considering the practice he likes to get in before round.

That could be beneficial, though. He might be too tired to be nervous — even though the 10th hole is such a beast, a par 4 at more than 500 yards that played so tough in the 2002 U.S. Open, major players couldn't even reach the fairway.

"I'll still be rubbing my eyes," he said, with a laugh.

Grinding

Cook is in the grinding stages of his career right now, after a highly decorated run at Ferris, where he was a Division II All-American as a senior. He was a two-time Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference player of the year, and holds the program record for single-round score and tournament score. As a senior, he finished 15th individually at the NCAA Championships.

He's since bounced around a bit, between work as a teaching pro and time on some mini-tours. He's back in Michigan for now, working as a teaching pro — not at some hoity-toity country club, but at Yankee Springs Golf Course, a modest 27-hole facility near Wayland, between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo. The course is far more known for a good steak than a good test of golf. He took the job because of a family friend. It will allow him to play a full schedule of smaller tournaments around here.

But this is a chance to springboard his career. The top 20 club pros from the national PGA Professional Championship — Cook made it with four shots to spare — are in the PGA Championship field. Cook's immediate goal is to beat the other 19.

His game, he said, translates well to Bethpage, a ball-striker's paradise. The rough is going to be thick, and the course, soaked with rain, is going to play even longer.

"Nothing's going to be life-changing unless I win or make the top 10," said Cook, 25, whose caddie will be his old golf coach at Ferris, Mike Mignano. "Obviously, if I make the cut, I'll get a pretty good check. For sure, I want to make the cut, then kind of go from there, see where I'm sitting after two rounds. For me, the first thing is trying to stay super-steady throughout the week.

"This course, if you make 72 pars, you're basically winning."

Ah, what a concept.

When winning actually means winning.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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