Nature Valley Am tees off at TPC Scottsdale
As a pilot for Southwest Airlines, John Rutan has a built-in advantage when it comes to competing in the annual Nature Valley Amateur, a grass-roots tournament for the average guy that provides an authentic PGA Tour experience.
And, no, it has nothing to do with his golf game even if Rutan was one of the big winners at last year’s championship at the TPC Sawgrass – the home of the prestigious Players Championship.
“It does help to be able to fly for free,’’ said the 53-year-old Scottsdale resident, who took four shots at four different TPC qualifying sites last year before he finally broke through at the TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill, site of the John Deere Classic, to gain entry into finals for a second straight year.
“I just wanted to go back in the worst way because I had such a great experience the first time around. And then after all that (qualifying) last year, I ended up winning my flight, so that was a pretty neat bonus.’’
Rutan, who will be competing in his fourth Nature Valley Amateur on May 16 at the TPC Scottsdale, is one of those golf guys who love “playing where the pros play”. A lot of tournaments promise such an experience, Rutan added, but none deliver quite like the Nature Valley Amateur.
“I can sum it up in a few words – they treat you special. That’s certainly what got me hooked on it,’’ said Rutan, who tried to qualify at the TPC Scottsdale, the TPC Snoqualmie and the TPC San Antonio last year before he finally pulled off the trick and eventually won the trophy.
Basically, golfers try to qualify in five different flights – the Tour Flight (scratch to 5.9 handicap), Eagle Flight (6 to 11.9 handicap), Birdie Flight (12-17.9 handicap), Par Flight (18-24 handicap) and all-new Ladies Flight (0-24 handicap). The five winners at each of the 18 TPC qualifying sites – 90 players — advance to the TPC Sawgrass at Ponte Vedra, Fla.
As far as costs, contestants are responsible for their transportation and rooms to the big event, but receive two rounds of golf, a pairings party dinner (contestant and guest) and an awards banquet for qualifying. The initial entry fee is $158.
“I took my wife and sister last year, and everybody had a wonderful time,’’ Rutan related. “The first couple of times I played in the tournament, it was just one day of competition, but last year they made it two (days) and that really took it to a new level.’’
Rutan called Sawgrass “spectacular’’ with the best greens and bunkers he’d ever played, which is saying something when you consider that Rutan plays mostly at Troon Golf facilities in Scottsdale like Troon North and Talking Stick, as well as Grayhawk and the TPC.
But Rutan said certain elements surrounding Nature Valley’s national championship made the event better than any tournament he’d ever played in.
“The caddies they provide are just great. They know there stuff and they really do make you feel like you’re playing in a professional event,’’ he said. “You also get a locker with your name on it right there in the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse. So there you are in the midst of all these lockers with PGA Tour players’ names on them.’’
Oh, yes, and there was one other thing Rutan cherished about last year, when his 168 gross score led to a 150 net and his victory in the Eagle Flight.
“The 17th hole – OMG! — I’d seen it so many times on TV during (the Players Championship) but it was even better in person,’’ he said “That walk from the 16th green to the 17th (tee) was just unbelievable.’’
That’s why, no matter how many times it takes him, Rutan is dead-set on a return to TPC Sawgrass.
“I’m entering at the TPC Scottsdale, which is May 16 and the first of 18 chances, and if I’m not successful, we’ll see how many it takes,’’ he said. “I know that I’d like to go back and play the TPC Snoqualmie anyway simply because it’s beautiful and it was cold and rainy the last time I was there – but still beautiful even in crummy weather!’’
Yes, Rutan could be flying all over the country trying to land a spot in the Nature Valley Amateur – his favorite tournament on earth. He just hopes to bring home the Waterford crystal that goes to the five flight winners.
“My big crystal trophy is on our kitchen table, so I get to look at it every day,’’ he said with obvious pride. “It’s right there with the smaller crystal trophies I got for qualifying those two straight years.’’
If Rutan isn’t enough of a gung-ho spokesman for the event, you can always check it out at naturevalleygolf.com. Just hit the “PLAY’’ button to start the video of the 2010 tournament highlights. In fact, one of those guys holding the crystal appears to be none other than “Nature Valley veteran‘’ himself — John Rutan.
“I guess you could call me that, for sure,’’ said the defending champ.