Grinders earn final 4 spots into Rocket Mortgage Classic at Monday qualifier

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Washington Township — This is first time Luke Guthrie has been away from his 4-week-old son.

Hang tight, Mills. Daddy's gonna be a little late getting home.

Guthrie, a former standout golfer at the University of Illinois and now a Jacksonville, Florida, resident, shot a 6-under 66 to set the tone early at Monday qualifying for this week's Rocket Mortgage Classic. He secured one of the four remaining spots in the Rocket field with a sharp round at The Orchards.

Luke Guthrie, left, signs his paperwork as a new entrant into the Rocket Mortgage Classic, as Kevin Helm, executive director of the Michigan PGA, looks on at The Orchards on Monday.

He'll be joined this week at Detroit Golf Club by fellow Monday qualifiers Chris Naegel of Wildwood, Missouri, who also shot 66; KK Limbhasut of Phoenix, who shot a 67 playing in Guthrie's group; and Erik Flores of Cornelius, North Carolina, who shot a 67.

In an oddity for Monday qualifiers on the PGA Tour, there was no playoff. Naegel's late-posting 66 knocked out a group of seven hopefuls at 68, including two local players.

Guthrie, 32, was a PGA Tour card-holder from 2013, right out of college, through 2016 — buoyed by six top-10s early in his professional career. The Rocket Mortgage Classic will be just his third PGA Tour tournament since the four seasons on tour, including the Valspar Championship this year, and the U.S. Open in 2019.

Looking back, Guthrie thinks he might have had too much success, too early on the PGA Tour. He got his card without even going to Qualifying School.

"Just in the process of trying to get better, I got worse," Guthrie said in the shaded pavilion Monday afternoon, before signing his paperwork to enter this week's field at Detroit Golf Club.

"I kick myself. I just kind of didn't see some of the things that I did so good, you know, better than a lot of people in the world, in terms of golf. I only looked at my weaknesses and just judged myself against the best in the world in each category that they did best. I didn't judge my whole game. That was a big mistake. It's been a journey trying to get back."

Guthrie has conditional status on the Korn Ferry Tour, and has played four events, missing the cut twice and making it twice. There was no Korn Ferry Tour event this week, so it was the perfect opportunity to give it another shot in a Monday qualifier.

It's no coincidence he played so well in Big Ten country. He had never played The Orchards before this week, but the bent grass and Kentucky bluegrass rough are staples in the Midwest.

Guthrie said he tried to approach Monday's round in three-hole segments, trying to go 1 under on each. He birdied Nos. 2 and 3 to put him ahead of that pace, then made a three-putt bogey from 40 feet at No. 7.

Still, a 6 under was what he set out to do — and while there's no guarantee a 66 will ever hold up at a Monday qualifier, where scores typically are super-low, on this day it did.

And it's days like this that make the grind worth it.

"The good days, yeah," said Guthrie, who got married in 2016 to Kaitlyn, and the couple has two kids, 3-year-old Ford and 4-week-old Mills. "That's what I'm learning. ... It was so easy back in 2012. There's no scar tissue, I'm a young guy, just the ground running, you just go.

"Then some challenging moments happen in your career and doubt creeps in. ... If you've played a decade in this game, nobody gets out of this game ... the greatest ever have their struggles. The more you play, the more struggles you're gonna have, the more bad shots you're gonna see, but also the more good shots.

"What do you choose to see and focus on. That's what I'm learning."

A field of 62 players teed it up at The Orchards on Monday, from all over the United States and the globe. You could've played the license-plate game and got nearly halfway to 50 without leaving The Orchards' parking lot, as so many of golf's grinders drive around the country chasing that magical week.

Three players who had tee times at The Orchards already made the Rocket field: Jonathan Byrd, Bo Hoag and Bo Van Pelt. On Sunday, the Rocket gave its last sponsor's exemption to Joohyung Kim, who is ranked No. 39 in the world and who tied for 36th at the 3M Open in suburban Minneapolis on Sunday. After Emiliano Grillo withdrew from the Rocket on Monday, alternate Robert Garrigus, who had a Monday qualifier tee time, was given his spot (after the alternate ahead of him, Michael Kim, turned it down).

For Limbhasut, 26, who played golf at Cal and is from Bangkok, Thailand, the Rocket Mortgage Classic will be just his second PGA Tour start. He played the Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego back in 2020, missing the cut by one. He's played six Korn Ferry Tour events this year, missing the cut in five.

Former Cal golfer KK Limbhasut will make his second PGA Tour start, at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit.

"It means a lot, an opportunity like this doesn't come up too often," Limbhasut said between phone calls to friends and family, and inquiries with Michigan PGA officials about where to book a hotel. "We've been working so hard to get an opportunity like this.

"It's stressful, because you can play good golf and it's only four spots. I'm even surprised. I came in with 5 under earlier today, and I thought at least 6 under would probably be in a playoff."

Limbhasut carded an opening-round 32 to set the pace on his round.

The odds are long at every Monday qualifier, for every player in the field, but don't tell Naegel, 30, of Anaheim, California. This is his third time Monday qualifying this month, including at the 3M. He finished tied for 16th at the John Deere Classic at the beginning of the month, and tied for 56th at the U.S. Open two weeks before the John Deere. This will be his ninth PGA Tour start.

Flores, 35, of Grass Valley, California, will be making his second PGA Tour start, first since 2011. That year, he played at Q School and finished two strokes from getting his card, which should tell you all you need to know about the thin margins in professional golf.

Northville's Jimmy Dales, who plays at the University of Wyoming, and Davison's Douglas Piesko, who played collegiately at Lake Superior State, both shot 4-under 68. They were among the first groups in, meaning they had to wait for nearly two hours to see if there'd be a playoff — Naegel crushing their hopes.

"Just gotta go low," said 2021 Michigan Amateur champion Patrick Sullivan, a Michigan alum and Grosse Pointe native who played in his first PGA Tour Monday qualifier and shot 1-over 73.

Sullivan left the parking lot with a smile, but so many others didn't. There were sighs, and slammed trunks.

Unless you're a top-150 player in the world, it's hard to make a living as a golf pro.

Guthrie knows that all too well. He's played in 105 PGA Tour events. And No. 106 might just be the most-satisfying yet. That's perspective for ya.

"Like looks a lot different — a lot more responsibility, a lot more time constraints," Guthrie said. "But I wouldn't trade it for anything. It's the best."

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984