EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of four releases regarding 25-year segments of the Michigan PGA Professional Championship, which will be played for the 100th time Aug. 16-18 at Prestwick Village Golf Club in Highland. The final group of 25 tournaments started in 1997.
In the last 25 years of the Michigan PGA Professional Championship Scott Hebert, Jeff Roth and Brian Cairns are the golfers with the most victories, and their different career paths also represent the hundreds of PGA golf professionals over the years in another way.
They each balance a lifestyle that includes playing and competing at a championship level with teaching the game and serving the membership at clubs.
Hebert, the 52-year-old head golf professional at Traverse City Golf and Country Club, an eight-time winner of the championship, second only to nine-time winner Al Watrous, will not catch the legend this year. He isn’t playing in the 100th Michigan PGA Professional Championship, missing for the first time since he left his touring pro life behind and became eligible as a Michigan club pro.
“I hate to miss it, but I have a sponsor’s exemption into the Ally Challenge (PGA Tour Champions in Grand Blanc) the week after and I can’t turn that down, I have my member-guest at the club this week and I want that to go well – that and my assistant had a baby, so something had to give this year,” he said. “I’ll be back though and this probably will be the only one I miss until I’m too old to compete anymore.”
Open heart surgery over the winter to repair a birth defect (aortic heart valve replacement) demanded recovery in the spring and Hebert said he isn’t quite 100 percent in strength and with his game.
“But I feel pretty good and if I was going to the PGA I feel like I would have a good chance to win it,” he said. “That being said, I should be stronger in another year.”
Hebert, since 2006, has been dominant in the championship. His four consecutive wins from 2006 to 2009 is a record for consecutive victories in tournament history, and his six wins in seven years from 2006 through 2012 stands out with only Chick Harbert’s four in five years between 1946 and 1950 showing a similar stretch of dominance.
“When I was coming home from the Hooters Tour or wherever and winning Michigan Opens (he won five of his six Michigan Open titles between 1997 and 2002) it was a different deal,” he said. “As a club pro and playing against other club pros, the wins in the Michigan PGA make me feel pretty good, too. For a while there I could say I was the best club pro in the state.”
Hebert has taken his golf game as a club professional to the national level as well. He won the national PGA Professional Championship in 2008 and was just the fourth from Michigan to win that championship that dates to 1968 and the split between the PGA of America and the PGA Tour. The others: Buddy Whitten in 1979, John Traub in 1980 and Roth in 1993. In 2019 Hebert won his first Senior PGA Professional national title and became just the third golfer to claim both national PGA Professional titles. He has also played in five PGA Championships with the best players in the world by taking the route through the Michigan PGA Professional Championship.
“Once I won the national club pro the pressure changed,” Hebert said. “I knew I was going to play in the national as a past champion. Our section championship works as a qualifier for the national and it’s really important for guys to get that chance to play in the national and then maybe the PGA. That helps make our section championship a great competition every year.”
Hebert, who previously worked at Sunnybrook Country Club near Grand Rapids and Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, has found he likes representing the Michigan Section at national tournaments.
“The (New York Metropolitan Section) gets a lot of credit for the players it has come out of there, but the Michigan Section is somehow always in the mix. I love to see Michigan guys do well. Ben Cook (Michigan PGA defending champion) is the guy now, and I try my best to stay relevant.”
Hebert said golf is unique in that its easy for him to root for others while still trying to win.
“You can’t play defense in golf, you can’t put a press on or get in a guy’s way,” he said. “I get mad at myself, but I also enjoy watching and encouraging the other guys. I love to encourage the younger guys. I’ve been one of those mini-tour guys. I’ve been a young club pro. Jeff Roth winning a couple years ago at what, 61, that makes me want to keep going.”
Hebert’s first five Michigan PGA wins were at the Eagle Eye/Hawk Hollow complex near East Lansing, and he said that stretch of tournaments are his favorite memory.
“I had a couple of years where I had really, really good back nines at Eagle Eye,” he said. “It’s something special when you play nicely and win. In golf you don’t get that opportunity to win all that often, so when you perform well when you want to perform well, it makes you feel great.”
Hebert’s wife Laurie calls the golf part of things Planet Golf.
“Planet Golf has been good to us,” Hebert said. “The game gives you ups and downs, but we’ve had more ups than most and we have been able to do things and see things because of golf. Being a club pro, taking care of things at the club and still playing as well as I can is a big part of that.”
Roth, like Hebert, points to support at home being critical to his success.
“My wife Maureen, the kids, without their support to do what they knew I loved to do, it wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “To play good for as long as I have there has to be tremendous support. I’ve been fortunate.”
The 63-year-old Roth, who teaches at the Boyne Golf Academy at Boyne Highlands Resort and previously worked at Flint Golf Club and Knollwood Country Club in Michigan with eight years in New Mexico too, is the perfect example of longevity.
He won his first Michigan PGA in 1998 at Boyne Highlands, where he works now, and his fifth two years ago in 2019 at Flint Golf Club, where he worked from 1989 to 2001.
He said the 2019 win became the favorite.
“I had a span of decades involved from that first win to the last,” he said. “That’s the most impressive thing to me. I’ve always been one to measure greatness by performance and longevity. To win over that span of years means you had to keep your body relevant, your mind relevant and your skill set relevant.
“Golf equipment has changed so much in the last 20 years, especially the last 10, and I’ve been able to adapt and deal with the ebbs and flows of the game, work life and professional life. I’m proud of that.”
Roth said part of his journey has been watching and learning from others.
“Jack Seltzer, Ken Allard, Randy Erskine, Lynn Janson, those guys all 10 years or so older than me showed you can stay intent on being good golf teachers and being good competitive players,” he said. “When I turned 40 I made it a goal of mine to be competitive until 70. In my mind and health willing, I will go at it until 70 and then take another look at it.”
Roth will be one to watch in the 100th Michigan PGA. He made everybody stop and watch in 2019 when he won the Michigan PGA just a few weeks after winning the Tournament of Champions at Boyne Mountain Resort.
“I don’t know if inspiration is the right word, but I like the chance to beat golfers who are half my age,” he said. “At the Boyne courses I feel really comfortable, and at Flint I felt comfortable and I happened to be playing well and putting well, too. A lot of things still have to happen for anybody to win.”
Roth has long been considered one of the finest putters in Michigan PGA Section history. One of his favorite memories from the Michigan PGA is a great putting and playing week in 2003 at Shanty Creek Resort.
“We were on the Cedar River course and I didn’t make a bogey the entire tournament,” Roth said. “We came to the last hole. I had a big lead, maybe nine shots, and I didn’t want to make a bogey. That last hole there is a par 5 into the wind, and I hit too much of a layup and had a longer third shot leaving me with a 60-footer. I hit that long putt short, 8-to-12 feet maybe and I had to make it for par. I did, and didn’t have a bogey for the week and that was pretty cool to me.”
Cairns was pretty cool when he made a 12-foot birdie putt on the No. 18 hole of the Katke course at Oakland University to take his first lead in the championship and win his third Michigan PGA title in 2013 to go with wins in 1996 and 2000.
“With the age and experience there’s a certain peace,” he said then at age 49. “It was a perfect one-cup (read on the putt) and it’s perfect to win this. This is the pinnacle of the section. This is what I really want to win every year. To me this is bigger than the (Michigan) Open, bigger than everything else.”
Cairns, a Detroit native who attended Madison Heights Bishop Foley, was in the junior program at Red Run Golf Club in Royal Oak and played golf at Division II Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla., called winning the PGA three times his biggest honor in golf.
“It’s about beating the best of your peers, so that’s No. 1 and it’s always been nearest and dearest to me, winning that tournament,” he said.
Cairns, who has also won the Michigan PGA Match Play title five times, played in the national PGA Professional Championship almost 20 times, said his success with golf came later than it should have.
“A lot of things came to fruition in the last 10 years that I have been working on for 30 years,” he said. “That’s been satisfying considering some of the things I’ve been through.”
Cairns, a long-time teaching pro at Fox Hills Golf & Banquet Center in Plymouth, readily admits to a problem with drinking in his younger days.
“It cost me a marriage, hurt relationships with my kids and hurt my golf, everything,” he said. “I was driven in the wrong direction by the bottle, and one of the best things was finally getting off that path.”
He persevered, and he said combining his love for competitive golf with teaching, especially young golfers, keeps him busy and moving forward.
“I met a lot of the old guys, Mr. (Walter) Burkemo, Chuck Kocsis, Tom Draper, those guys hanging around Red Run,” he said. “I learned about competing, and then over the years I’ve played with all the guys older than me who were good club pros, good teachers but also made sure they stayed connected to being good players.”
He plans to play as well as he can at Prestwick Village in the 100th PGA starting Monday.
“I’ve won three and I’m not going to stop going for number four,” he said. “It won’t be easy at Prestwick, but I’ll be out there trying.”
Cairns understands why the role of a club professional in the next 100 years causes some uneasiness.
“It’s going to keep changing, but I work with enough of the young players and play with enough of them to know that some of them are going to do what I do,” he said. “They may chase that PGA Tour dream. You have to let them do that. But those with the right personality who want to stay in the game will come back and teach the next generation, and every year they’ll try to win the Michigan PGA, too.”