Michael Block: Playing for Keeps
The talented club pro may not win this PGA Championship, but he has put the spotlight on an embattled profession
By Alan Shipnuck
May 19, 2023
PITTSFORD, N.Y.—Michael Block, the swaggering, stubbly club pro from Southern California, has been the star of the show over the first two rounds of the PGA Championship, impressing with a tight game, cocksure manner and affable sense of humor. What Block could not have anticipated was that he would be the latest foot soldier in a war that stretches back more than half a century. Do club pros belong in the PGA Championship? And if so, how many? These fraught questions helped launch the modern PGA Tour, and Block has now reanimated the debate.
The PGA of America’s mandate is to serve the hard-working men and women who teach the game and run the clubs and courses around the country. Beginning in the 1920s, many of these club pros from the Northeast and Midwest would migrate to the Sun Belt during the winter, looking for work, and action. The PGA organized a loose schedule of tournaments, which ultimately coalesced into something bigger and grander. Even as the game’s popularity exploded with the arrival of color TV and Arnold Palmer, the parochial PGA of America remained in charge of competitive golf in the U.S. In June 1967 the players began their uprising, producing a seven-point manifesto that demanded greater control over the schedule, the disbursement of funds and the hiring of administrative staff. More than 130 players signed the letter, which included a stunning ultimatum: If the PGA didn’t acquiesce to all of their points by June 15—the first round of the U.S. Open—the players would boycott the PGA Championship, to be played a month later at Columbine Country Club outside of Denver.
A year of threats, recriminations and negotiations ensued. Jack Nicklaus had been a leader in the player revolt all along, but the game’s best player took the fight public at—where else?—the PGA Championship, in 1968. After missing the cut, Nicklaus was asked what he thought of the composition of the field, which included 112 club pros and only 56 touring pros. “It’s absurd and unfortunate,” Nicklaus harrumphed, rankling PGA officials and souring the ongoing negotiations.
Following the PGA Championship, 100 angry players convened at the Westchester Classic to vote on the future of professional golf. It was unanimous: The players committed to forming a breakaway league, American Professional Golfers Inc. A 13-member APG advisory committee was created, headlined by Nicklaus. The PGA of America made its stance clear—us or them. “If a player decides to go with the other group, his PGA card will be lifted immediately,” said Max Elbin, president of the PGA of America. “We will continue to play tournament golf. It will be tough at first, but we will endure.” His lieutenant Leo Fraser expressly pitted the tour pros against the club pros, noting that the latter ministered to young golfers around the country. “We’ve got 6,000 little factories turning out potential stars,” Fraser said. Eventually the touring pros prevailed after the sponsors and TV interests sided with them. Thus the PGA Tour was born in rebellion, creating a lingering animosity with the PGA of America.
Over time the number of club pros in the PGA Championship was gradually reduced. Now only 20 are in the 156-player field. It has become a monumental achievement for any club pro just to make the cut, which is what makes Block’s play so noteworthy across the first two rounds at Oak Hill. On Thursday, he made five birdies and shot an even-par 70, along the way making some new fans with a charismatic walk-and-talk interview during the ESPN telecast. Plenty of club pros have one good round before regressing to the mean; the over-under on Block’s second-round score was, per the press room consensus, 78.
But the 46-year-old head pro at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in Mission Viejo, is not easily overwhelmed. He played his way into the U.S. Open at big-time ballparks Oakmont (2007) and Shinnecock Hills (’18) and is a 10-time Southern California PGA Player of the Year. He plays a lot of casual golf with world No. 4 Patrick Cantlay and Beau Hossler. Earlier this year, Block nearly made the cut at Tour events in San Diego and Palm Springs. Of all the fancy Tour pros he’s competing against, Block says, “I’m not afraid of them anymore, to be honest.” So he came out firing on Friday morning, making birdie on three of the first six holes to climb into a tie for second place. (Block began his round at the 10th.)
He was still near the summit of the leaderboard when he arrived at the par-3 5th hole, and then Block lived every golfer’s nightmare: a cold shank (below), in front of God and Scott Van Pelt. He fought hard from there to salvage what he called “a pretty good double bogey.” Facing a grueling finishing stretch, Block rallied with airtight golf for four closing pars and another 70 that left him only four strokes off the lead when he walked off the course. Instead of fretting about making the cut, Block has grander ambitions. Asked what his goal is for the weekend, he says, “To win, by far. As weird as it sounds, I’m going to compete. I promise you that.”
He has a believer in one of his playing partners for the first two rounds, Hayden Buckley, who says, “He’s got it. He’s really talented, really impressive. We were joking that he hits it so short [off the tee] a lot of the trouble isn’t in play for him. But he never misses a fairway, which is huge out here, and he rolls the ball very well. He has a very unique, natural putting stroke—he just gets up there and feels the ball in. It’s nice.”
Block will head into the weekend playing not only for his family and the members at Arroyo Trabuco but also his fellow club pros. Running a golf operation can be a demanding job; just this week, Matt Ginella released the first in a series of podcasts about what stakeholders in the game are calling a “club pro crisis” as courses around the country struggle to attract and retain talent. There are plenty of PGA Tour pros who, in an unguarded moment, will opine that only a handful of spots should be reserved for club pros in their own championship… and maybe none at all. But Block has already proven that he belongs, and that it is still possible to wear many hats at once. As he told reporters after his second round, “Yeah, I wish you guys could come to my office and hang out with me and come teach with me on the back of the driving range with my students who are out there right now…” Momentarily overwhelmed with emotion, he had to stop to compose himself.
Block is probably not going to win this PGA Championship, but he has already given the tournament its beating heart.
In 1994, Alan wrote his first cover story for Sports Illustrated as a 21 year-old intern, and in the ensuing quarter-century he typed two dozen more. He is the author of eight books, including best-sellers Bud, Sweat & Tees; The Swinger (with Michael Bamberger); and Phil. Shipnuck has won 13 first-place awards in the annual Golf Writers Association of America writing contest, breaking the record of Dan Jenkins, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Alan lives in Carmel, Cal.