Wait a minute. It can’t be.
Is that popular PGA Tour star Freddie Couples behind the Pita Pit restaurant counter wrapping around one of their gigantic pitas during the lunch rush hour?
No, at second glance, maybe he’s No. 1 senior pro golfer Kenny Perry, noted for duffing an easy chip shot to lose the 2009 Masters Tournament.
“All the time,” said the man with the true identity behind the fresh vegetable counter. “When I was out on tour (PGA Tour) I’d be mistaken for those two all the time. The clubhouse boys would see me and say, ‘Hello, Mr. Perry, can I take your bag?’”
It’d be a surprise to see any of these PGA superstars out on Grand Avenue near North 24th Street West, serving the pita-loving public. But perhaps, for the local golfing brotherhood it’s, how shall we say it, a bit interesting to see Montana’s best-ever male golfer finishing up the healthy wraps with his soft hands, at the end of the line, next to the cashier and alongside the summer-job high schoolers.
We’re talking about Billings’ own Mike Grob. At 50. Can it be?
It is. And Grob’s been out-of-sight quiet lately. So we asked him what’s been going on.
“Well, I’m just helping out with (wife) Christi and the Pita Pit. She puts me to work when I’m home, and lets me go when I can.
“I don’t get to play quite as many tournaments as I’d like, mainly because I don’t have a set place to play. I’m just looking to play in any event I can get into.”
It’s because the Canadian PGA Tour told its all-time leading money winner (including seven wins) that his veteran exemption status has run dry, after successfully playing up north for years.
Last fall, Grob, at 49, tried to qualify for our country’s PGA Champions (Senior) Tour and missed by a stroke to move on to the second and final stage. Had he made the two stages, he would have begun his Champion Tour career last month, when he turned 50.
He’ll try again this fall to get aboard pro golf’s ultimate mulligan. In the meantime, Grob’s trying to keep sharp playing in low-level pro tournaments including the Lake City Open in Polson in early May, where he finished second, and the Saltwater Classic in Riverton, Wyo., late that month, with a middle-of-the-pack placing. The Wyoming Open, this week in Cheyenne, will be his next money-making start, noting he can pocket change as both a regular and senior entrant.
Missing Senior Open
On June 17, Grob headed south to Denver but failed to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open, to be held later this summer at Oak Tree Country Club in Edmond, Okla. It’s a goal, since he has never qualified for a U.S. Open.
“I was always playing the tour in Canada during qualifying time,” said Grob. “And I would have to come back down to the U.S. to a qualifying site, driving 11 or 12 hours to get there and then tee it up with little or no sleep. It was pretty tough.”
Whether competing in the Lake City Opens, paying three grand to the winner, the U.S. Senior Open, or the Champions Tour, all fall in line with what Grob’s been for nearly 30 years, and desires to continue being - a full-time golf pro competing for prize money. There are no aspirations to be a club pro, or golf teacher, range picker upper, or really any other job in the golf.
Grob said he knew he always wanted to be a PGA touring pro since age 9, a year after his father, Duane, took him out to Laurel Golf Club for the first time. Later the family became members at Yellowstone Country Club where Grob was mentored by longtime pro Paul Allen, who, along with his father, was the biggest influence in his golfing career.
The residence was 200 yards from the clubhouse. The boy lived for golf.
He competed in the Junior America’s Cup as a teenager, a “neat experience” that allowed him to travel to Hawaii, Arizona, Canada and the Pacific Northwest. When he won the state title as a senior at Billings West High School, he remembers running into Montana’s most famous baseball player inside the Yellowstone Country Club clubhouse.
He got a little gold medal for being the state champion, then saw former Baltimore Oriole pitching great Dave McNally. Grob begins to laugh.
“He says, ‘Let me see that. Hey, I’ll trade you this World Series ring. I have two of them.’ And I say, OK! Then he says, nope.”
He followed a good local amateur, Laurel’s Mark Metzger, down to Scottsdale Community College in Arizona in 1982 playing under Steve Loy, who now manages golf megastar Phil Mickelson. When Loy left to become golf coach at the University of Arkansas, Grob followed, making all-conference for two years. But ironically, despite the free ride to play, Grob believes his collegiate golf later stunted his pro career.
College golf was played conservatively, like always laying up on par fives, not wanting to make a high score for the overall good of the team. At least with his coach.
“I didn’t know how to go for tough shots when I came out as a pro,” Grob said. “I can remember getting over certain shots and my hands were shaking, and they shouldn’t have been, but they were, because our coach made us play scared. It took me about 10 years to get over that.
“If I had to do it all over again, I would have just skipped college golf and gone on and started playing the mini-tours, because the pro game is just so competitive. Everybody is shooting at the stick, going for birdies.”
Interesting. This from a man who earned a degree in business finishing up with coursework at Eastern Montana College in 1986.
Following college, Grob spent a year in Florida playing the Space Coast Pro Tour, a well-known get-your-feet-wet mini-tour. He remembers his first event, at the Magnolia Course at Disney World, outside Orlando. It’s cold and windy in January 1987. And Grob was thinking they’ll let any hobo come out on this course and play. Geez.
“I’m out there in my first event, in nice slacks and shirt,” recalled Grob. “And I see this guy out there in jeans, a red thermal shirt and a stocking cap. And I’m thinking, who is this guy? And the guy just played awesome. Well, it was Damon Green, who’s now Zach Johnson’s caddie.”
He says mini-tours today are expensive, the life is tough, and lonely, for sure, but he’d recommend those starting out to play them if possible.
“You’ll play all kinds of different courses, against all kinds of players, in all kinds of conditions,” Grob said. “There are no other players from Montana who ever competed on the PGA Tour because nobody else has tried. When I was coming up there were other players from the state just as good as I was, or even better, but nobody gave it a try.”
Taught by father
Businessman Duane Merle Grob fell in love with golf back in the early 1970s, playing the game until he died in 2011 at 83. Son Mike said his father was an independent sort, always his own man, operating eateries, bars and casinos, including the popular Wong Village restaurant in Lockwood.
“We had a dream between us to play golf together for 30 years,” Grob said about their close relationship. “So, it was rough when he passed away, but he was able to play right up to when he passed away, so that was kind of a blessing.
“He knew my swing from when I was a kid, and could spot things when we needed to. My dad was key to me.”
The father’s four handicap gave him some authority to eyeball his son’s swing. But perhaps more than anything, the self-reliant dad helped nudge the young man, following college, to the edge of the diving board – and leap away from chilly Montana to a warm climate and start playing golf for a living. Didn’t matter if nobody had really done it from the state of Montana, the son could be a first. Why not?
“My dad was reading about mini-tours down in Florida, and says, ‘well, why don’t you try that?’ recalled Grob. So in the winter of 1986-87, Grob moved to Orlando, where he would reside for a dozen years, first playing the Space Coast Pro mini-tour.
Ironically, despite home basing from the Sunshine State, Grob would spend some of his most prosperous professional years north of Florida, in fact, north of the U.S. border.
“Then my dad says, ‘Hey, I’ve been reading about the Canadian Tour; why don’t we try that?’” Grob said. “So, I said, OK.”
And both were glad he did. From his first event in Victoria, British Columbia, Grob found success, eventually finishing 15th on the money list in 1988. He would spend the next 11 summers in Canada, eventually ending up as the all-time leading money winner on their tour, with $552,726. (He also played the Canadian Tour after leaving the PGA Tour in 2004.)
Grob, along with wife, Christi, and daughters Holly and Dana, traveled by fifth-wheel trailer across Canada for most of those years, camping at tour stops.
Christi toted his bag for most events and went to cookouts and gatherings at night with other players and families, like 2003 Masters champ Mike Weir. Great and memorable times, says Grob.
Grob recalls competing in the Canadian Open in 1996 at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Ontario.
The family had just finished a player- and family-only meal upstairs in the clubhouse and were walking down a spiraling set of stairs.
And who happens to be climbing up the other way for some Canadian cooking? A green Tiger Woods, just out on the PGA Tour.
“He stoops down on his knees and spends a few minutes talking to our girls,” Grob said. “People see Tiger Woods and think he always mad, or upset, the way he talks to the media. But, Tiger Woods away from the media is really just a nice guy. We saw that.”
Former PGA Tour player Mac O’Grady is famous for going to PGA Tour qualifying school 17 times without making it to the big show. Grob said he stopped counting, didn’t want to know the numbers after a while, but the count was also high.
He did do well enough to gain status and compete on the second-tier Nike Tour (Buy.com) from 1998-2000, where his best finish was a second place in the New Mexico Classic in 2000.
The big show
Finally in the fall of 2002, he made it, at age 38. He became the first, and only, Montanan to compete as a regular player on the big tour.
Statistically, he was sixth in overall driving (length and accuracy) and in the top 60 in greens in regulation in 2003. But, mediocre short game play left him at 150th on the money list that year ($354,286), despite two top 10 finishes.
One was his fifth place finish at the B.C. Open that year, shooting a final round 64, with his father and mother walking alongside. Finally, after many years, the leap resulted in a pretty nice splash – a $98,000 pay day, his biggest to date.
He had limited status on the PGA Tour the following year in 2004 and when his swing mechanics vanished the big stage time came to an end. But he would go on and win three more times in Canada.
One, certainly a career highlight, involving his family, was his last Canadian Tour win at the 2009 City of Surrey Invitational in British Columbia. Both his daughters caddied for him during that victorious week.
So what are his hopes, his dreams, at the half-century mark?
“It’s a dream to get on the Champions Tour, just to make a living for myself and my family through golf. It’s still fun, still a passion for me, and I only have a few more years to do it. And I’m going to give it a shot, and hopefully, it will work out. But if it doesn’t, I’ll be OK.”
See, Christi always has a job waiting for him at the popular Pita Pit. Right between the summer job high schoolers and the cashier. Wrapping around those gigantic, yummy pitas at the end of the line.
With those soft hands.