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Spittle’s Surprise

The Champions Tour is usually good for a surprise or two that will bring a smile to a golfer’s faithful followers. It sure delivered one two Sundays ago when Rod Spittle, a 55-year-old Canadian who lives in Columbus, Ohio, beat Jeff Sluman on the first extra hole of their sudden-death playoff at the AT&T Championship in San Antonio.

Spittle’s win, good for $262,500, was as unexpected as it was deserved. The 1977 and 1978 Canadian Amateur champion from St. Catharine’s, Ont., hadn’t even turned pro until he was 49, a year short of being eligible for the old, well, older boys’ network. He had sold insurance for a quarter of a century, but had nurtured the dream of finding out what sort of golfer he could be after turning 45.

Spittle found out, and as a qualifier. He had no status on the Champions Tour, no status except that of a golfer who thought he could compete with Sluman, Fred Couples, Bernhard Langer and their ilk. He came to the tournament expecting that he would soon head for the Champions Tour’s regional qualifying school.

But now he is exempt from qualifying. Now, he has status, and stature. He showed he had game, a winning game.

“I’d packed enough clothes for the next two tournaments in Texas,” Spittle said from his home in Columbus last week. “But all of a sudden at 6 o’clock on Sunday night I didn’t have to do anything.” That is, he didn’t need to worry about qualifying, or being on the road, or where he might next play.

“It has been an amazing three or four days,” Spittle, who attended Ohio State University where he was a teammate of John Cook, said of the time he’d been back home after parring the first extra hole to defeat Sluman. He hit a deft little chip shot through the rough, with his feet hanging over the lip of a bunker on the first playoff hole. The ball ran through the heavy grass and finished four feet from the hole. Sluman faced a bogey putt inside that distance, but Spittle made his par putt to win.

Spittle almost made a huge mistake before trying his par putt. He had moved his ball to allow Sluman to putt for par first, and nearly forgot to replace his ball in its original spot. Sluman, class act that he has always been, reminded Spittle to replace his ball.

“It would have been awful for it to end like that,” Sluman said of what would have transpired had Spittle forgotten to replace his ball.

Spittle’s world has now expanded in so many good ways. However, he still intends to be involved at the Little Turtle club, a Pete Dye design in Columbus. He has been a member there since 1985, and started to help with golf operations when two of his buddies bought the club three years ago.

Spittle has to be one of the most engaging fellows one could meet in the game. Jeff Dykeman, the Canadian PGA’s manager of business development, certainly knows this.

“Rod is one of the nicest people I’ve ever come across in Canadian golf. This year at the Mr. Lube – CPGA Seniors (in Milton, Ont.) – he walked right over to a group of young kids that were watching on the first tee. He talked to them for about 10 minutes before he teed off and then gave them his business card and told them to e-mail him their results from the upcoming junior club championship.”

Spittle has in fact made so many friends during his unusual journey, in his own country, in Columbus, and in Dunedin, Fla., where he and his wife, Ann, have a winter home. He plays at the Dunedin Country Club and TPC Tampa Bay, which hosts the annual Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am on the Champions Tour.

“I’ve heard from all the people I’ve met and from many I don’t know,” Spittle said. “The win happened so quickly it’s almost hard to believe.”

Spittle’s win wasn’t the only feel-good story that weekend for Canadian golfers. Brantford, Ont.’s David Hearn played his way back onto the PGA Tour with a fourth-place finish in the season-ending Nationwide Tour Championship at the Daniel Island club near Charleston. Hearn advanced from 27th to 21st on the money list. The top 25 qualified for the 2011 PGA Tour. Hearn played there in 2005 but hasn’t been back since.

“It has been a while coming,” Hearn said after returning home to Brantford. “I think I’ll be better for the years away and for what I’ve learned.”

Hearn was happy for Spittle, of course.

“That’s pretty neat,” Hearn said. “You always look for the Canadian flags. Rod’s win was awesome. You have to love stories like that. The Champions Tour always comes up with a few.”

It sure does, and it sure did.

“My swing is continuing to get tighter and tighter,” Spittle said. “Now that I’ll have an opportunity to play more, I think it will keep getting better.”

Given what he accomplished to become an exempt player, and the road he has taken, nobody should doubt what Spittle could yet accomplish.


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