ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Six Former UNM Golfers Qualified For PGA Tour
It’s one of the finest recruiting pitches a college coach can make: name-dropping professional athletes who went through his program.
For University of New Mexico men’s golf coach Glen Millican, there are plenty of names to drop.
This year, six former Lobos have PGA Tour playing status.
Toss in a couple of players on the Web.com Tour (formerly the Nationwide Tour, etc.) and a trio on the Champions Tour, and there are ex-Lobos filling the links from tee to green.
“I’m not sure if this is the most we’ve ever had at once,” Millican says. “But there is certainly a great number of former players representing the school. …
“It helps us tremendously in recruiting. It gives us a conversation piece. It’s a great thing to be able to talk to recruits and their parents about, and it’s great to talk about with our community. It really shows what people can accomplish here at the University of New Mexico.”
The six ex-Lobos on the PGA Tour span more than two decades of college competition.
They are: Kent Jones (Lobo from 1986-90), Tim Herron (1990-93), Doug LaBelle II (1993-98), Michael Letzig (2000-03), Spencer Levin (2004-05) and Charlie Beljan (2004-07).
Together, the six have won more than $36 million in prize money on the tour, but this is the first year they have all had playing privileges in the same season. Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely they will all play in the same event this year. Levin had wrist surgery and probably is out for the year.
Jones, at 46, is the oldest and Beljan, 28, the youngest. Jones has been a top-notch competitor on the tour for much of the past two decades, but has never won an event. Beljan already picked up a tour victory, capturing the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic in November in Florida.
Beljan needed the win to make this year’s tour. The victory also gives him status next year.
“It just helps a ton this season,” Beljan, who plays in today’s Farmers Insurance Open in La Jolla, Calif., told the Journal on Wednesday. “I can just go play golf now. I still want to play well, but if I have a bad week, there’s always next week. If I have a bad year, there’s always next year. But I want to play in big events, majors and the World Golf Championships. My expectations are high.”
LaBelle and Letzig are back on the big-boy circuit after having lost their tour cards in recent years, and could be factors in a number of events this season. Levin has been a big-time threat to win for a half-dozen years and finished as high as second, losing in a playoff at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in 2011. He also had a third-place finish last year and was 68th on the money list with more than $1.2 million, easily qualifying him for this season. The top 125 each year retain playing cards the next year. He will be a name to watch again next season.
Then there’s Herron, the gregarious 43-year-old nicknamed “Lumpy” for his portly stature. He will likely finish up his pro career as the greatest ever ex-Lobo golfer.
And he’s never forgotten his roots.
“If I’m not carrying my TaylorMade bag, I usually carry my Lobo carry bag around,” Herron says. “I’m proud to be a Lobo, and it’s been great to see the success in the program. There are a lot of guys with great potential on the tour.”
Much was expected of Herron as a pro. He won a school-record five tournaments in college, including four as a senior during the 1992-93 season.
He hasn’t disappointed. Herron has won more than $18 million in his PGA Tour career, which includes four victories.
Still, Herron had to battle to make this year’s tour. Going into the final event last season, he was outside of the top 125 on the money list. He needed to come up large in the year’s final event – the Children’s Miracle won by Beljan. He did just that, tying for ninth to earn nearly $113,000. That moved him into 124th on the money list and back on the tour this year.
“I tried to put everything else on the back burner and focus on what I had to do for that one,” says Herron, who lives with his wife of 12 years and three children in Wayzata, Minn. “I was able to do it, and hopefully this year I won’t get in that situation. It gave me another year to perform with the best golfers in the world, and I’m excited about this season.
“But right now I’m just taking it year by year. If it doesn’t happen, I’ve got a great family and support group to fall back on. Every year is a bonus, and I try to embrace that and enjoy it.”
Jones has been enjoying his professional career since 1992. He has picked up $5.7 million on the PGA Tour, despite bouncing off and on it a few times.
This year Jones, who has a master’s degree from UNM and was once an assistant coach on the UNM golf team, has “provisional status” on the tour, meaning he will have to get through a lot of Monday qualifiers to get in events.
He says his goal is to try to play in some PGA Tour fields, but also in a number of Web.com events.
“I’m kind of in no man’s land right now,” he says. “If I can get in and play well and make money in some events (on the PGA Tour), I’ll have the chance to play in other events.
“But it’s getting tougher on me,” he says with a chuckle. “Imagine that – but everyone on tour is getting younger and younger every year.”
Jones, who was born in Portales, says he’s very familiar with the tour’s other Lobos.
“I think the golf community and guys from UNM are close-knit,” he says. “We follow each other and root for each other. It’s good for the program.”
LaBelle is back on tour for the first time since 2008 and is off to a nice start. He has made the cut in both events he’s played in, and shot a 72-hole score of 17-under 271 at the Humana Challenge last weekend.
“My game is a lot better than it was five years ago when I was out here, every aspect of it,” LaBelle told the Journal on Sunday. “I feel like I could win, given the right course for my game. I do think my abilities continue to get better, and I’m thankful for that. My goal is to win this year, but there are a lot of good players and good talent out here. The competition gets better every year, and today’s players are such great athletes.
“But it absolutely feels good to be back. It’s a dream come true, as you hear a lot of guys say. But it really is something you dream about it as a kid, getting to play against the best in world.”
OTHER LOBOS: Ex-UNM golfers and former PGA Tour players D.J. Brigman and Sean Murphy are on this year’s Web.com Tour, while ex-Lobos and former PGA Tour standouts Tommy Armour III, Brad Bryant and Curt Byrum are all on the Champions Tour.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal