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Wednesday, Apr. 23, 2014

Pro golf comes to Bootheel

Sunday, July 9, 2006

(Photo)
Robert Landers
SIKESTON -- Ever get a chance to live a dream? Robert Landers did.

Landers, a laid-back, soft-spoken, unpretentious Texas farmer who plays golf in tennis shoes, came out of nowhere to qualify for the PGA Senior Tour in 1995.

"One thing we (Landers and wife Freddie) vowed on the way home from the qualifying was that we were going to share with the people that wanted us to share, basically trying to encourage the little guy that if you keep trying, keep plugging along that good things can happen," said Landers. "That was our way of giving back for what we considered one of the miracles of life."

He will share his expertise and thoughts in a golf clinic as a member of the Heartland Players Senior Tour (HPST), a mini-tour for senior players who aspire to qualify for the Senior Tour or simply wish to remain competitive.

The HPST features 2005 and current money leader Bruce Vaughan along with former PGA and Senior Tour players such as David Lundstrom, Rex Caldwell, Frank Conner, Rocky Thompson, David Ogrin and Landers.

The week-long event, billed as the Bootheel/YMCA Charity Golf Classic is the brainchild of Jeff Ketterman, Bootheel Golf Club manager and head professional. Activities include a practice day for the professionals on Monday, a pro-am on Tuesday with the pro tournament competition to follow on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Landers' clinic is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, following the pro-am.

Said Landers, "I do more talking than hitting (balls) and a lot of that is talking about what golf can do for you. It can give you opportunities and self-

satisfaction that, in my case, I couldn't get anywhere else."

The Landers' story is nothing short of remarkable. No country club background. No high school or college golf. Just a guy who dug deep and found a niche.

Landers, from the small northern Texas town of Azle with a population of about 10,000, found himself an immediate media darling upon qualifying for the Senior Tour.

He inspired a gallery known as the "Moo Crew" which followed his exploits on the tour wearing Holstein-patterned caps. Landers, a self-taught golfer, raised a small herd of cattle on his farm in Azle.

A book, Greener Pastures, was written as well as feature stories in Sports Illustrated, Golf World and other prominent sports publications and spots on a variety of local and national TV shows. A potential movie deal never came to fruition.

"It all hinged on how well I could play golf," said Landers, of the movie deal. "If I had stuck on the Senior Tour longer and done better, it may have happened."

A living testament to the common man rising to unthinkable heights, Landers hit thousands upon thousands of balls in his pasture, mostly for his own recreation, and became proficient enough to compete at a high level in local amateur tournaments.

"My ability to communicate and work with people was very limited," he said. "I considered myself to be a very reclusive person. Although I worked in the public (managed a small clothing store in Azle until its closure in '92), I couldn't wait to get back to the farm and get out and practice because that is where I relieved all the pressures of the day.

"The key was that I wasn't going to get very far without something like golf that let me feel good about myself, something that I could do for myself and by myself."

Landers, after a two-year run ('95-'96) on the Senior Tour, just missed qualifying for three straight years ('97-'00), then decided to walk away. His highest finish was a 14th place in a tournament in Cincinnati.

"In 2001, my wife and I looked at each other and said, 'Hey, we might as well quit this.'"

The relatively short stay on Tour was far from a losing proposition for Landers and his wife Freddie.

"One of the things that it did was give my wife and myself, who, probably at our best, might have made about $25,000 a year, the opportunity to pay our house off and we've never gone in debt since," said Landers, whose prime sponsor on Tour was the Dickies Co., the work clothes manufacturer. "We are now in a position that we can get along without going into any debt. Even though we don't make a lot of money, it put us in a position that we can live comfortably without getting a job."

He keeps his competitive juices flowing with occasional forays on the Heartland Tour circuit, mostly smaller venues.

"I really don't enjoy going to big, metropolitan areas that are real busy with a lot of traffic. I enjoy towns the size of Sikeston much more. Now, we're a little bit more choosy, picking our spots."

He said he is asked regularly, by aspiring players, what it takes to make it out on the Tour.

"I can't say you don't have a chance because it happened to me," he said. "All I can do is try to show him what he's got to do.

"First, you've got to have game and then the big question is how do you get the game. I hit 100,000 balls a year for 20 years. The reason I did that was because that was about as close as I was going to get to golf because I only played once a week. So that meant that I had to hit golf balls instead of playing, but that's also a little bit of an advantage from the standpoint that I knew where my ball was going to end up. Not that my game is anything near a top professional's game in terms of technique, ball flight and all that stuff, but I knew where it (the ball) was going to end up.

"What I did when I knew that I was going to qualify (for the Senior Tour) was make sure that I spent 50 percent of all my practice time with a sand wedge (56 degree loft) in my hands. If someone asked me today, I'd say spend 60 or 70 percent of that time hitting the lob wedge (60 degree loft). I didn't have a lob wedge and I didn't have all the shots, but I knew where to land the ball and when it was going to quit rolling. It's a different game than it was then. It took me a year-and-a-half of practicing almost every day with the lob wedge before I got a handle on it -- consistently putting it in play all the time."

Asked what was the toughest part of playing on the Tour, Landers replied, simply, "The greens. Chipping and putting. That's it."

He said the Heartland Tour and other smaller tours are an excellent training ground for those seeking to get on the big Tour, but also spoke of the realities of the situation.

"The truth is, when you're chasing these smaller tours, the guys are taking $1,000 to $1,500 out of their pockets to try to win something back and there may be 10-11 players who'll make money or break even. That's their way of paying for their training."

Landers, when not competing, is busy working with kids and helping to promote Cross Timbers Golf Club in his hometown.

"The main reason I do what I do right now is, one, I love to play, obviously, and I can also help the tour with its pro-ams and clinics," he said. "The impact I may have on just a couple of kids--that's my whole thing. At home I work with kids, give them clubs and try to find a couple of kids that might someday earn a (golf) scholarship to college.

"Cross Timbers, which opened in '95, was my biggest dream in life. So I'm doing everything I can do to help that course. Our citizenry is growing along with everything else and the golf course, which is city owned, is going to be a major factor.

"A Wal-Mart just opened there this year," said a chuckling Landers, offering proof of Azle's growth.