Ryan Helminen of Menasha tested his metal against the best golfers in the world this week at the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville Kentucky. He was one of 20 PGA teaching professionals in the event’s field. He missed the cut by a shot but his two round total of 144 (+2) was the best among the club professionals in the tournament.
He arrived in Louisville early in the week so he could get in a few practice rounds and get acclimated to the environment before the tournament really got going. That gave Ryan a good frame of reference for just how different things would be when Tiger Woods showed up debating whether to enter the event or not. “When he showed up and whether he was debating whether he was going to play or not it was a 180. The cameras, the reporters, even though Rory is as good as he is to be honest with you it’s still Tiger Woods world. It’s still all about Tiger Woods whether he’s going to play. When he shows up it’s kind of his tournament and everyone else is just playing in it,” Helminen recalled.
Helminen traced the missed cut back to a pair of double bogeys in the first round. He chalked the doubles up to what he called “rookie” mistakes as he pulled the trigger on shots where he didn’t feel fully committed which proved to be costly. He’s played in several PGA Tour events in the past though and said that overall he felt very comfortable. While most weekend players might be paralyzed by the crowds Helminen relished the opportunity. “Having all the people out there and the support actually helps you, it gets you amped up and gives you a reason to focus,” Helminen said.
Overall he felt pretty happy with the way he played after posting two double bogeys in his first eight holes. “The last 3 nines I played I felt like I committed to every shot. I played good I didn’t play great but I played good. I played great at times.” He felt especially good about his play on Friday, when he shot even par 71 and had a chance to make the cut going into the final few holes. “I felt like I had total control probably the last 14 holes yesterday. I probably played as good as anybody but like I said going +4 in 2 holes early the first day really sets you back,” Helminen said. “It’s an adrenaline rush. There it’s just trying to make the cut because that’s where my game is right now and I think if I played more and got into that arena more often I think I’d be more comfortable and not make those early mistakes.”
While making the cut and getting the opportunity to compete on the weekend at a major championship would have been an amazing experience, Helminen and his contingent left Kentucky with plenty of memories. He brought a contingent of 25 people including his wife, parents, kids, students and friends with him, allowing those close to him the chance to get an up close look at the world of major championship golf. “They thought it was kind of cool to be up front behind the ropes and see what goes on behind the scenes, I got to have my dad caddy for me one of the practice rounds and was able to take him in the locker room and showed him around.”
Helminen’s group quickly adapted to the tour life. They stayed at the same hotel as PGA Tour stars like Sergio Garcia and KJ Choi and by the end of their time, were completely unfazed to see Garcia hanging around the hotel lobby.
Helminen took more than memories from the week. He could see just how closely his game compares to those who compete on golf’s highest stage. “To be honest with you I think I can play at their level. I don’t think my talent is any less. I think I just need to be more acclimated with my surroundings and get more opportunities to play out there. Playing in one every two years isn’t going to cut it. I need to play better in events that can get me into bigger events and move on from there,” Helminen said.
He summed up very succinctly the difference between the teaching professionals like himself and the tour players in the field. “Last week I was playing in pro-ams, giving lessons, hanging around the club and these guys are playing at Firestone and the week before across the pond. They’ve got a whole different schedule of events and playing in that arena every week.”
He did admit though that there’s a big difference between the rank and file of the tour and the most elite of players. “Even on the tour there’s a bunch of different levels. Guys when they’re playing well they can really go low. They’re almost invincible. Some of the shots I’ve seen in the telecast that they’re hitting it’s just amazing what some of these guys can pull off.”
The par 5 seventh hole is one of the holes on the golf course where the cream separates. The hole has a split fairway with the longer hitters taking the left half of the fairway which gives them a shot to go from the green in two even if it is lengthy shot. Ryan said he wouldn’t even think of going left while the guys contending for the title, “they hit hybrid, 3-wood on green like nothing, to be honest with you I’d never even attempt that shot, and every one of those guys up on the leaderboard can do it like they’re hitting a 7-iron.”
In the end, Helminen seems to have a renewed vigor for the game and said he plans to work hard on the areas of his game he considers weakness right now. He’s even thinking about eventually trying PGA Tour qualifying school again, but that’s a decision for another day.