Saturday, September 26, 2009

Leonard Thompson

Unless you're a ultra hardcore golf fanatic, you might not have heard of Leonard Thompson.

He doesn't show up atop leaderboards like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson do almost each week. But Thompson has played more professional golf tournaments than both Woods and Mickelson combined.

The SAS Championship marked Thompson's 1,000th tournament, combining both the PGA and Champions tours.

He joined an elite group Friday, becoming one of 10 golfers to play at least 1,000 professional golf tournaments - Miller Barber, Dave Eichelberger, Charles Coody, Arnold Palmer, Dale Douglass, J.C. Snead, Gay Brewer, Gene Littler and Jim Colbert.

There was a time when you did see Thompson's name on leaderboards alongside more recognizable names like Hale Irwin, Payne Stewart and Curtis Strange. He won three times on the PGA Tour, his first coming in 1974 at the Jackie Gleason-Inverrary Classic, where he beat Irwin by one stroke. He won the 1977 Pensacola Open by two strokes over Strange; and he topped Stewart, Billy Andrade and Doug Tewell by one stroke at the 1989 Buick Open.

I caught up with Thompson, 62, in the clubhouse at Prestonwood Country Club Friday after
Irwin and John Morse presented Thompson with a huge cake to mark the historic event.

He was sharing his cake with the wait staff in the clubhouse, getting a couple of pieces to go and leaving the bulk of the chocolate delight behind.

As we walked outside, he just shook his head and said he had no idea that a cake would be waiting for him on the 18th green after his first round of the tournament.

"Pretty nice," he said.

Thompson, a North Carolina native and Wake Forest graduate, said 1,000 tournaments isn't something you set out to do. The Champions Tour, previously called the Seniors Tour, was nine years away.

"But once I knew I was going to do it, I tried to arrange to do it here," said Thompson.

He grew up in Laurinburg; played his first tournament at Pinehurst; went to Wake Forest; and played in 20-plus Greater Greensboro Opens.

"Anything in North Carolina has special meaning," he said.

He said he had the chance to do a West Coast swing of Champions Tour events, but his 1,000th would have taken place somewhere in California. He didn't want that. He wanted to do it in his home state.

"Four or five things have to happen to make it to 1,000," he said. "You have to stay healthy; you have to have an understanding wife; you have to have an organization in place to have enough events to play to reach 1,000."

Thompson has officially retired from the Champions Tour, but he plans to play some events as long as he remains competitive.

And those competitive juices were apparent on Friday. After a round of 74, I suggested that he was probably just happy to be playing.

"I ain't as happy I would have been if I had shot a 65," he said.




Photo
Hale Irwin (L) and John Morse (R) present Leonard Thompson a
cake marking Thompson's 1,000th tournament during the first
round of the SAS Championship Friday at Prestonwood
Country Club in Cary. (Photo by Michael Cohen/Getty Images)


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