Published November 20, 2014
What makes golf so appealing is that it can be played for a lifetime.
And the dreams that go with it don't expire easily, either.
Such is the case of Tim Thelen. His name might not be familiar outside the PGA of America or southeast Texas. Thelen spent his career as a golf professional, working at a country club in College Station and a resort in New Ulm, and once giving lessons at a driving range that since has been replaced by a Wal-Mart.
He was good enough to play college golf at Houston Baptist — a Scottish kid named Colin Montgomerie was on his team — but he never made it through Q-school, and that was before there was an alternative like the Web.com Tour. Back then, there wasn't even a web. The one year he reached the final stage of Q-school, he was 38. And while there was a developmental tour and Thelen had conditional status, he also had a steady income and an 11-year-old son.
Thelen won the Club Pro Championship twice and played in the PGA Championship nine times without ever making the cut. He played in 22 regular PGA Tour events, through his status as a club pro or Monday qualifying, and made four cuts and the grand sum of $78,742 over 15 years.
But as he approached his 50th birthday, a conversation with the late club pro Bob Boyd changed everything.
"He played on the European Senior Tour. This was late 2009 and he had been playing for five years, and he loved it over there," Thelen said Tuesday morning from his home in College Station. "It's different over there. But it's like I told my wife, there's an opportunity to make money and we'll see the world."
It has turned into so much more than he expected.
Two weeks ago in Munich, with wife Lucinda on the bag, Thelen holed out with a 6-iron for an albatross on the par-5 opening hole in the Berenberg Bank Masters. On the back nine, with Bernhard Langer and Barry Lane among those chasing him down, Thelen closed with three birdies on the last four holes to win.
Bags packed, hotel booked, they headed off to Switzerland for the Bad Ragaz PGA Seniors Open. This time, it was a pair of Ryder Cup captains — former world No. 1 Ian Woosnam and Mark James — applying the pressure. Thelen made two late birdies to thwart the charge and won again.
And so ended his six-week journey that began in Michigan for the Senior PGA Championship and took him to Spain, England, Holland, Germany, Switzerland and finally back home to Texas for two weeks.
That allowed the 51-year-old Thelen time to reflect before heading back over to Turnberry for the Senior British Open.
"I had a really good career as a club pro," said Thelen, who resigned from The Falls when he earned his European Senior card. "Winning the Club Pro Championship twice, winning the National Assistant Pro Championship once ... I knew I could play. I didn't know I could reach the level I have today. You always dream of playing on a tour, and I never lost focus. But as a golf pro, you have to find time to play and practice.
"Every golf professional has that opportunity," he said. "It's whether he takes that opportunity when the shop closes at 7 p.m. and there's still two hours to practice or play nine holes. Unfortunately, it's hard on the wife and kid. But you've got to keep your dreams alive."
He remembers the conversation with his wife after earning his card.
"Two things can happen," he said. "We can make some money. Or we can go broke. And we've been there before."
Lucinda caddies for him in the summer until she has to go back to her day job teaching children with autism, and working two nights a week at Texas A&M where she is an instructor on how to teach children with disabilities.
The only time Thelen ever traveled in his previous job was to Ireland and Wales for the PGA Cup, a Ryder Cup for club pros. That was as part of a team. Now, he and his wife have learned to book hotel rooms on the Internet, figuring out which rooms are close to the golf course and whether they need a rental car. With one TV channel in their hotel room in Switzerland, they wound up watching "Jaws" in German.
There was the time Thelen woke up in the middle of the night in France upon hearing his door open, only to see an elderly man standing there. "I'm speaking English at him, he's speaking French at me and we're getting nowhere," he said. The man presumably was given the wrong room key.
A friend who came over to caddie for him in Portugal had dry skin. They went to buy lotion and, not being able to read the label in Portuguese, bought liquid soap.
"After three days, he looked like a lizard," Thelen said.
On the golf course, it's the same game he started playing at age 6 growing up in Minnesota. Winning feels the same in Switzerland as it did at the Club Pro Championship. The difference was looking up at the leaderboard and seeing his name alongside guys like Langer and Woosnam.
"I look up at the board at the Club Pro Championship, I know most of those guys. I have dinner with them. I knew after so many years that I could win out there," he said. "But in my second year on the European Senior Tour, getting to play golf with guys I grew up watching ... I didn't know if I could win."
With back-to-back wins, Thelen now has made $144,711 this year and is second on the Order of Merit behind Senior PGA champion Roger Chapman. He wants to try Q-school on the Champions Tour in America this year. The prize money is higher. The travel is easier.
Whatever happens, he knows he has a tour to call home, even if it's thousands of miles away.
"I've had the opportunity to see the world and different cultures," Thelen said. "I've loved golf since I started playing at 6 years old. This is a dream, something I've always wanted to do."