Kentucky PGA

TW Tales and More from Another TW: Tom Walters

Golf professionals are full of stories, but there might not be one with more to share than Tom Walters. The Head Golf Professional at Summit Hills Country Club in Crestview Hills has collected a surplus of memories during his time on the golf course. All those memories combined with his eccentric personality, knowledge of the sport and strong golf game make him one of the most dynamic members of the golf industry.

Walters was born in Pennsylvania and moved to New Jersey shortly thereafter and spent the first decade of his life there before he and his family moved to the Cincinnati area while he was in 5th grade. A significant move as it would relate to the sport he and his brother Mike would concentrate on going forward. Had they never moved and remained in the Garden State, Walters is confident he and his brother would have been baseball players. Instead, moving to Cincinnati and the large volume of public golf courses in the area led them to seriously getting into golf.

“My dad has always loved golf and gets pretty frustrated when he plays, so you might not tell on the surface he loves it, but he always wanted us to take it up,” Walters exclaimed. “He cut clubs down to our size for us, but he never pushed it on us. We were self-taught in New Jersey, but when we got to Ohio we participated in golf camps and got hooked.”

Walters’ game never fully came together in his opinion until his senior year of high school. As he said, it “finally started to make sense” to him. Consequently, he didn’t have any offers from college golf teams, but one of his best friends was in the PGA Golf Management program at Mississippi State and convinced him to join him in Starkville. Walters walked onto the Bulldogs’ golf team, but the problem was the coach at the time was not very accommodating to walk-ons and never gave much correspondence to anyone who walked onto the team. Frustrated by the lack of opportunity, Walters transferred to Northern Kentucky University after three semesters where he received a partial scholarship and the opportunity to play on their golf team with full support and opportunity from his coach. Going to NKU presented another opportunity for Walters, however, much more important than playing college golf.

“I felt like this was my chance to really get my crap together. I was a bit of a wild child growing up and needed to mature. I was going to live from home while at NKU and really start to mature.”

Walters was able to do that and help the Norse reach new levels on the golf course. The team qualified for consecutive Men’s Golf championships in 1995 and 1996 with Walters helping lead the way. Inspired and confident he could truly play the game well, he began playing professionally after leaving college. In the late 90s, he traveled north of the border to try to play on the Canadian Tour, played in Monday Qualifiers, competed in mini tour events in Florida, U.S. Open Qualifying and everything in between for those trying to make it on Tour.

“I don’t know if I had super high expectations, but my golf game never came together at the right times. I was a medalist in two U.S. Open Local Qualifiers, but then when I got to Sectional Qualifying I played horribly. Little things just seemed to get me every time.”

Reaching a crossroads in his career, Walters decided to give competitive golf one last try but needed a consistent revenue coming his way at the same time. He sent his resume to Isleworth, a high-end golf community outside of Orlando looking for an Assistant Professional role. As it turned out though, the literal perfect job was waiting for him there.

“They offered me to be their Playing Professional. The role was open and it’s so funny because applying at Isleworth in the first place was a ‘What the hell?’ kind of move and yet this was available. My job was to literally play golf with their members and guests to show them a good time. I was able to keep my game sharp while working so I pursued pro golf one last time by playing more Monday Qualifiers and mini tour events.”

It didn’t work out, but that door closing allowed a new one to open. In the 2000s when Walters was at Isleworth, the club boasted top PGA Tour players who lived within the community. Among them was Tiger Woods, and Walters developed a relationship with the 15-time major champion through many rounds of golf and other interactions across the community. These weren’t his first meetings with Woods though. The two competed together during the stroke play portion of the 1995 U.S. Amateur at Newport Country Club in Rhode Island, where Woods won his second of three consecutive wins in the event.

“When he first saw me at Isleworth, he looked at me like, ‘I know you, but I’m not sure from where.’ I got to see Tiger do lots of ridiculous stuff on the golf course that showcased just how much talent he has. There was one time he was hitting chip shots 40 feet away and could curve the ball with those shots. I asked why he would ever want to do that in the first place and he was thinking if there’s a hill tilted a certain way he could cut or hook a chip against it to cancel it out. Then there was a time a range picker put a range basket out once around 225 yards away and Tiger hit it on the fly with his first try. His mind works so much more differently than any golfer I’ve ever met and his intelligence is off the charts.”

Through Tiger, Walters got introduced to Mark O’Meara, a two-time major champion and neighbor to Woods who served as a mentor to him throughout the early years of his professional career. Walters also became an instructor of sorts to Mark’s son which forged a relationship with the O’Meara family. As it so happened, O’Meara fired his caddy right before the 2005 Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. Not wanting to find a replacement, O’Meara took a recommendation from his son to have Walters hop on his bag, citing his previous experience playing competitive golf. Shortly thereafter, Walters got a call with an offer to caddie for O’Meara beginning that week.

Walters accepted immediately and found himself bumping fists with PGA Tour players that week at Bay Hill as he got introduced to stars he didn’t know already through Isleworth. He was not bumping fists with caddies, however, as Walters realized there was some resentment amongst long-time PGA Tour caddies towards him because of the fact he immediately came onto one of the most coveted bags on Tour. Other caddies who had been out there for years and aspire to get a job alongside a multi-time major winner like O’Meara looked at Walters with jealousy and the belief he didn’t deserve that spot. One caddie who did look after him though was Steve Williams, Woods’ caddy at the time. Williams took Walters under his wing and invited him to dinner or other activities when O’Meara had other commitments.

Walters alongside Woods and O'Meara during a practice round prior to a PGA Tour event

A few weeks later in Augusta, O’Meara had someone else carry his bag, but Walters was still invited to come along as part of O’Meara’s team and had inside the ropes access during the 2005 Masters Tournament. Being a former Masters champion, O’Meara was a popular figure amongst the Augusta National workforce which allowed for a particularly special opportunity early in the week. O’Meara brought Walters to the champions’ locker room, naturally only reserved for champions. But thanks to O’Meara’s popularity, the security guards pretended to turn the other direction when Walters followed O’Meara inside, laughing while Walters got to check out one of golf’s most treasured rooms. His fun on golf’s fabled grounds did not end there, as he accompanied O’Meara and Tiger during a special early-morning practice round.

“They both like to play practice rounds early in the morning and they started a round at 6:45 one day and patrons weren’t allowed onto the grounds until about 7:30. So I’m one of about five people inside the ropes including Tiger and Mark just after dawn at Augusta National and there’s nobody else around. It was incredible.”

Of course, it was this Masters Tournament where Woods won his fourth green jacket which was punctuated by his famous chip-in on the 16th hole during the final round. Walters had actually seen him work on this shot at Isleworth the weeks preceding the tournament. Walters recalls asking Woods what he was working on and was told “It’s this low, aggressive chip shot that checks up hard after a couple of bounces.” Naturally, the first thing Woods said to Walters when they saw each other at Isleworth after his victory was, “I told you! I told you!”

O’Meara didn’t find the winner’s circle in 2005, but Walters’ favorite memory from that season on his bag was during the third round of The Memorial in Columbus, Ohio. O’Meara was in the middle of a run when he came to the 9th hole at Muirfield Village, facing a diabolical putt across the green that was going downhill and featured several feet of severe left-to-right break. O’Meara holed it to get within one stroke of the lead, a huge roar went up from the gallery and Walters was officially involved in the chase for a premier tournament title on a weekend. Unfortunately, O’Meara tailed off after that putt on the 9th hole, but Walters’ hair still stands up whenever he thinks back to that putt.

After the experience as a caddie and several more years at Isleworth, Walters came back to Ohio in 2012. Leaving Isleworth, which he considers one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do, was done to take a position at Wyoming Golf Club in the northern part of Cincinnati. It was one of the most difficult parts of Walters’ career that nearly led him to leave the golf business.

“I was down in the dumps and seriously contemplated doing something else. Wyoming’s membership is fantastic, but they weren’t as golf-crazed as other clubs I’ve worked at. It was more of a social club and the whole reason why I wanted to transition to a new phase of my career was to share this information I’d soaked up from pro golfers for years at Isleworth. I just wasn’t really happy at that point, but then I got a phone call from Mark Welage at Western Hills Country Club who knew I was in a low point and knew he could offer something different for me at Western Hills. That job rejuvenated me and got me back on track.”

Walters was there for three years and then heard about Summit Hills’ Head Professional job being open thanks to Mark Krahe, the Taylormade sales representative for Kentucky. Krahe brought it up in conversation when Walters was unaware of the open spot. He applied and the rest is history. Walters began working at Summit Hills in the early part of 2018 and has happily been there since then.

“Summit Hills is rocking. The membership here is golf crazy. Nick O’Hern, who I met while at Isleworth, has come and done a clinic here in the past and we’re always looking at other things we can do to get people their fill of golf and then some. This place has a lot going for it and I love being a part of it.”

He’s come a long way from his quest to make a living playing professional golf, but Walters has plenty of competitive aspirations he still wants to fulfill. Locally, Walters wants to top the Kentucky PGA Section’s Player of the Year list which nets an automatic exemption into the next year’s Barbasol Championship. The Section’s biggest event for PGA Members, the Kentucky PGA Professional Championship is always an event Walters circles on his calendar because he’s keenly aware that a top finish in that tournament earns a spot in the PGA Professional Championship, another event Walters desperately wants to compete in. Finishing in the top 20 there to qualify for the PGA Championship would be the cherry on top so that Walters can make it to a major championship and compete in it, rather than walk alongside people who are competing.

But life is much more than those competitive aspirations. Walters is married to his wife Anna with whom they have three children. He’s committed to being the best father and husband while also being the best mentor he possibly can to his staff.

“Balancing love for family and the love for a job is tough. I love being around my family, but I also love to be at work. My wife is so dedicated to being there for our kids when I’m not able to and I can’t thank her enough for all the sacrifices she’s made. As a Head Pro though, I’m always trying to develop my assistants and set them up for success. I want to get ideas out of them and push them to think outside the box because if I’m the only one coming up with ideas, we won’t reach our potential as a facility.”

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