Aug. 9, 2014
MADISON, Wis. -- Contemplating what would be a reasonable expectation for his first PGA Championship, Ryan Helminen acknowledged his status as one of the 20 club pros in the field by saying, “I don’t think anyone in the world gives us a lot of high expectations.”
But the 39-year-old Helminen, a former University of Wisconsin golfer, wasn’t about to sell himself short. “My caddy (Kerry Baugher) and I feel like we have a good game plan,” he said. “As long as I can commit to my shots and I play my best, I can certainly compete at this level.”
Helminen proved as much Thursday and Friday at Valhalla Golf Club, a lengthy, water-logged 7,458-yard layout in Louisville, Ky. While showing that he wasn’t out of his element, he still fell one shot short of making the cut; tying with 10 others, including U.S. Open champ Martin Kaymer, at 144.
Obviously, it was Helminen’s expectation to play through the weekend. But he can go back to Ridgeway Country Club in Neenah knowing that he had the low score among all the club pros. Bouncing back from an opening round 73, bloated by two double-bogeys, he carded an even-par 71 on Friday.
“I honestly do feel I can be among the top 20 club pros year-in and year-out as time goes on,” said Helminen who booked his ticket for Valhalla after winning a playoff at the PGA Professional National Championship at Myrtle Beach, S.C. in late June.
“It’s nice that the PGA allows us (club pros) to play in this and I think it’s good for golf. The Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelsons promote golf a certain way. And I think people who teach golf promote in a certain way. It’s nice we can meet in the middle and it gives us an opportunity to play at a high level.”
The physically-impaired Woods didn’t make the cut after shooting back-to-back 74s (with a bad back) leaving him 15 strokes behind the 36-hole leader Rory McElroy. Meanwhile, one of the golfers that Helminen looks up to – Steve Stricker – stayed in contention with rounds of 69 and 68.
As a collegian, Helminen was tutored by Stricker’s father-in-law – former UW golf coach Dennis Tiziani. “I learned a lot from Tiz,” said Helminen, an Appleton product. “A lot of the stuff we didn’t get at the time. But as time has gone on, we’ve taken it to heart with ‘Strick’ around helping us out.”
Following Wednesday’s practice round, Helminen was in the company of C.J. Brock, one of his former Badger teammates. He has stayed in touch with many of them, like Matt Gerlach, Jim Lemon and John Carlson, the 2014 Big Ten Coach of the Year. Carlson is entering his fourth season at Minnesota.
Helminen might have had an entirely different support group today if his dream to play college hockey had materialized. “I really didn’t go to Wisconsin for golf, I wanted to play hockey,” he said. “I grew up playing forward, I was a center iceman, and I scored quite a few goals.”
To this end, he played two years of junior hockey with the North Iowa franchise (now Cedar Rapids) in the United States Hockey League. But before he had a chance to convince Jeff Sauer, then the UW hockey coach, that he could dangle with the puck, he was intercepted by Tiziani.
“Tiz was pretty high on me coming out of high school,” said Helminen who went to Appleton East. “And I knew realistically that I wasn’t going to make any money out of hockey, so I switched over to golf. The team wasn’t great when I got there and Tiz threw me in the lineup my freshman year.
“I was a little bit above average college player. I had some good years and I had some not so good years (at Wisconsin). I definitely learned a lot from him (Tiziani) and I feel like I’ve really progressed a big amount since I graduated from there (in 2000 with an undergrad degree in History).’’
Hockey players generally tend to be good golfers. “They have a good size (for golf), not too tall, not too short,” said Helminen, citing the success of Jerry Kelly on the tour. Kelly grew up playing hockey in Madison. “They have good eye-hand coordination and they’re pretty strong in their forearms.”
As suggested, Helminen’s golf game has matured. Besides winning the 2008 State Open, he has been named the Wisconsin PGA Player of the Year in six of the past seven years. Last March, he carried his success outside the state by capturing the TaylorMade National Championship at Pebble Beach.
On becoming a teaching professional, a Class A member, he wanted to teach and yet still compete at a high level without some of the sacrifices. “You don’t want to kick around the mini-tours forever and you certainly don’t want to jeopardize family life to try and make it (the tour),” he said.
But he has been able to compete in three PGA Tour events and now he has added a major to his resume. Before teeing off in the PGA Championship this week, Helminen admitted that the needle was buried on his personal “excitement” meter with 1 being the lowest and 10 the highest.
“If you’re not a 10, you’ve got something wrong with you because this is about as high as it gets,” he said. “You have to play with a lot of emotion out here yet you have to play your normal game and try not to get ahead of yourself… you have to try to not out-think yourself.”
It’s reasonable to think now that he was wise to hang up his skates when he did.
“I think I made the right choice,” he said. “Did I ever think that I’d be one of the top golfers in the world? That was a long shot. Did I ever think I would have regular status on the tour? Another long shot. But I thought maybe someday I would in the Top 20 in the nation as far as a club pro.”
That day has arrived. Moreover, he left Valhalla atop that leaderboard.