Hammond seeking senior breakthrough

Marylander's results mixed in first year on Champions Tour

Constellation Championship

October 02, 2007|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun reporter

Donnie Hammond set his sights on the Champions Tour shortly after turning 45. A 20-year career on the PGA Tour was winding down, and Hammond had to figure out a way to keep his game sharp enough until his 50th birthday this past April Fool's Day.

"I didn't have a tournament until May. Here I've been waiting to try to get 50 for the last five years, and I had to wait a month to play," Hammond said yesterday.

Hammond, who grew up in Frederick, is still waiting to make an impact. He is hoping that will happen this week, when Hammond will play in the Constellation Energy Senior Players Championship at Baltimore Country Club beginning Thursday in Timonium.

Standing on the range at Five Farms, Hammond said the transition has not been easy.

"I knew the quality of play was pretty high when I came out here," he said. "I knew I was going to have to play a month or two to get my game in shape to be able to play competitively. It's probably come a little slower than I hoped."

Hammond has played with mixed results in 13 events. He has missed the cut only once, at the Senior PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, S.C., but he also has only one top-10 finish, a tie for ninth at the Senior British Open at Muirfield in Scotland.

Mostly, he has struggled to crack the top 20.

"I haven't been really consistent," Hammond said. "You seem to look up in the first round after nine holes and you'll feel you're going along pretty decent at even or 1-under and you see 5-under, 4-under, 3-under. Guys get off to quick starts out here."

Not that Hammond is complaining. He feels a bit rejuvenated just playing regularly again, getting to play courses other than the ones he played for two decades on the PGA Tour and playing with old friends and competitors whom he hadn't seen in a few years.

"I've been kind of patient early because I know the guys that have been doing well out here have been playing pretty tough out for the last five, six, eight years," Hammond said. "Guys like Gil Morgan and Dana Quigley and Jim Thorpe and Hale Irwin. They're pretty sharp."

There is also an adjustment to leaving his family again. Hammond has spent most of the past five years with his wife, Trenny, and their two children, ages 10 and 8, in Orlando, Fla. Hammond also has two other children, ages 20 and 18, from his first marriage.

"I've been home a lot for the last five years, too much for some people," Hammond said with a laugh. "But it's hard to go for two weeks when you've got a little 10- and 8-year-old. You can almost see a little tear in their eye when you leave. Two weeks is like two months to them."

Along with former University of Maryland golf coach Fred Funk, this will be something of a homecoming for Hammond. The first time he ever played golf on a regulation course was on the nine-holer at Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) when he used to go to the Baltimore Colts' training camp with his late father, Bill.

"After a while I said, `Let's go 18,'" Hammond said. "Football is fine, but I like this golf, too. He said, `If you want to get a membership, you can get a membership at the VFW in Frederick.' I was playing baseball and football, but about two days later I told him I wanted to do it."

Part of his inspiration for becoming a professional golfer came from the Colts.

"I was looking at these grown men, and they're out there playing around like kids," said Hammond, who met his boyhood idol, John Unitas, at a sports banquet at Turf Valley shortly before the legendary Colts quarterback died five years ago. "Being a pro athlete looked fun."

Hammond's career path didn't take shape until his senior year at Jacksonville University in 1979.

"I was majoring in psychology, and I was thinking it was either grad schools or the mini-tours," Hammond said. "I didn't know about going to school longer, so I thought I'd try pro golf. I started playing pretty good on the mini-tours."

After earning his PGA Tour card by winning the Qualifying School by 14 strokes, a record that still stands, Hammond carved out a solid career that included victories at the 1986 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and 1989 Texas Open. He finished a career-high 20th on the money list in 1989 and made a little more than $4 million in his career.

During his first appearance at the Masters in 1986, Hammond had one of his biggest thrills. Playing in the next to last group in the final round with defending champion Bernhard Langer of Germany, Hammond kept hearing roars coming through the pines at Augusta National.

"I kept thinking, `Somebody's lighting it up,'" said Hammond, who finished tied for 11th. "Then Nicklaus' name came up on the board, and it was like, `Whoa'. You knew where Jack was. It was even better after watching it. It was more amazing to see how he did it. It was cool."

Given his blue-collar background, Hammond played at a high level for a long time.

The last five years, when he played sporadically on the PGA and Nationwide tours, was the toughest part, counting down the days until his 50th birthday.

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