Club pro Rob Labritz is living his dream on the PGA Tour Champions, but wants more
Rob Labritz is still missing a key part of his Cinderella story.
The 51-year-old has been a club pro since he was 19 and dabbled on many professional circuits in the 1990s and early ’00s, such as the Australasian, Gold Coast Golf and Golden Bear tours. By 2004, he was playing the on Canadian Tour, but walked away from playing full-time because he was going through a divorce and wanted to be there for his young son, Matthias.
Labritz then took a job at GlenArbor Golf Club in Bedford Hills, New York, where he’s currently the director of golf. He didn’t give up competing entirely, though. He has 11 PGA Tour starts to his name, eight of which are PGA Championships. He claimed low club professional honors at the 2010 PGA and in ’19 at Bethpage Black, where he has also won three New York State Opens. Not to mention, he holed a wedge from 95 yards to emerge from a three-way playoff at the PGA Professional National Championship and notch the final spot in the ’13 PGA. That also earned him the No. 1 play on “SportsCenter.”
Through all that, he’s been focused on a particular goal since 2004 — to play on the PGA Tour Champions. And on May 31, 2021, Labritz hit the qualifying mark — age 50.
“If anybody doesn’t believe in visualization, and actualization coupled with talent, (Labritz) is the story where you actually say it worked,” said Debbie Doniger, the director of golf instruction at GlenArbor, who has known Labritz since they were both 12 from playing AJGA tournaments.
The PGA Tour Champions is considered the hardest tour on which to earn full status. The circuit mostly gives a second lease on life to the careers of yesteryear’s PGA Tour stars. There are only five cards awarded at Q-School’s final stage, and the next 25 can try to open qualify for events during the season.
On Dec. 10, 2021, Labritz achieved a lifelong dream by shooting a final-round, bogey-free 64 to best 79 players in the final stage of Q-School at TPC Tampa Bay and claim one of those five coveted cards.
Directly after, cameras caught Labritz overwhelmed with emotion, calling his wife, Kerry, in tears to tell her, “All the sacrifice, we did it.”
The clip went viral — and golf’s next fairy tale was born.
“(That moment) manifested over a lot of years,” Labritz recently told GolfChannel.com via phone. “You want something so bad you can kind of taste it, all of that was in that moment.”
But Labritz doesn’t play to go viral. He worked tirelessly to achieve his goal of playing at the tour level. And now with that being his reality, his focus has shifted toward a new goal.
“I know I can win,” he said. “I keep saying this, I can win, it’s just a matter of time.”
Labritz hit the ground running. He placed T-5 in his fourth event — the Rapiscan Systems Classic — and didn’t miss a cut until his ninth start. He’s missed two cuts in 14 starts, all while getting used to traveling around the country nearly week after week.
But even in a dream come true, he wants more.
“The first half of the season, so to speak, people tell me that I’m doing great,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m doing great. I feel like I’m doing OK.
“I sit 30th (out of 184) on the money list right now with half the season left and I can feel — I can tell you in my belly, I’m getting comfortable. I feel like I’m supposed to be out here now.”
Though every week on tour is “an adrenaline high” for the Connecticut native, playing alongside those he idolized growing up, Labritz has embraced the grind. He’s been working on his fade, wedge and bunker games, putting and ball striking.
“I need to keep improving to really do what I want with my game,” he said, “but I’m gonna continue to do that because I enjoy every second of it.”
Labritz has scaled back on teaching during this season, because with work, being a husband and the father of three, including a 1-year-old, and now playing a full tour schedule, carving out practice time can be difficult. He’ll practice at dusk or dawn, sessions which Doniger calls “paramount.” But quantity doesn’t always equal quality.
“With that finite amount of time,” Doniger said, “I think he’s been able to have ridiculously quality practice.”
Doniger, one of Golf Magazine’s top 100 instructors, calls herself a “sounding board” in Labritz’s training. He has a team of various teachers who work with him and Doniger has brought in a few people to help with his short game and putting.
Labritz ranks 14th on tour in driving distance (291.3 yards), but 49th in putting average, 63rd in scrambling and last (75th) in sand save percentage.
“If he can’t figure out the solution,” Doniger said, “I will figure it out with him and for him and make sure that the people we bring into his team match his personality and are thoughtful and smart.”
But not all the keys to success come through practice. A neophyte on the senior tour, Labritz doesn’t have as much tournament experience and knowledge of the tour’s courses as his competitors do.
“I’m a little behind the eight ball when it comes to playing against Bernhard Langer,” he said.
As Labritz gets more competitive rounds under his belt, the tour’s “little secrets” will pop up.
“I’m still trying to figure out when to be aggressive,” he said, “when to play the center of the greens. I guess when you have this win mentality, it’s hard because you fire at a lot of flags. And when you do that you run the risk of making mistakes.”
Labritz’s progression has shown during major championship season, though the mishaps have still bit him. He most recently missed The Senior Open cut, but was in contention at the Senior Players Championship through three rounds. However, he shot a final-round 2-over 72 and finished T-11.
But two weeks before that, in arguably the tour’s most prestigious event — the U.S. Senior Open — he nearly tasted victory.
After three consecutive 2-under 69s at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, he trailed only Padraig Harrington, the eventual champion, heading into the final round. He even took out his phone on the first tee box and videoed the atmosphere before Round 3 to savor the moment of being in contention.
It was a milestone Doniger knew she couldn’t miss. And with her busy schedule, she says when she shows “up to things, it’s a big deal.”
“(Sunday) I took off right from work,” she said, “got there by the 14th hole, and like, was just so genuinely excited, it’s like watching somebody I grew up with truly achieving something that he’s dreamed about his whole life.”
Labritz shot a final-round 74 to finish T-4, but it’s still his best finish of the year — for now.
“It totally means I’m working on the right things,” he said, “means my brain is parked in the right place to be able to compete like that on a national scale. But it also means I need to learn how to close.”
Labritz has the rest of the season to figure out how to get past the finish line. He’s in the field for this week’s Shaw Charity Classic in Canada. It’s one of nine remaining regular-season events, ahead of the three-event playoff series. Labritz said he’ll play as long as he can “hit the ball far enough to compete and win.” If he can finish inside the top 54 in Charles Schwab Cup points this year, he’ll have that opportunity next season as well.
“I’m 51, I feel like I’m getting better,” he said. “And I think that’s what’s gonna keep carrying me to obtain my goal of winning. And then once I win, I think I’m gonna win a few times. I think it’s just going to open up the floodgates, but I got to get there first.”
Although Labritz wasn’t chasing victories on the PGA Tour as many of his senior tour competitors did, now is his time to shine. And if his vision of being a champion comes to fruition, he will have completed an all-time Cinderella story.
“He was meant to play the senior tour,” Doniger said, “and he was meant to play for a living and this was the time to do it. And maybe he wasn’t meant to play the PGA Tour … But this was his time. This was what the universe held for him and he’s gonna soak up every minute of it.
“And he is gonna win.”