The evolution from player to teacher has been seamless for Stan Utley. His niche as a player always has been the short game and, in a game full of mysteries, there is nothing ambiguous about the value of the short game.
After years of grinding on the professional golf tours, Utley has taken his area of expertise and turned it into something very rewarding. He has emerged as one of golf's gifted and most in-demand instructors.
This week, Utley returns to his roots as a tournament player when he tees it up for the first time on the Champions Tour. He qualified Monday for the Toshiba Classic at Newport Beach Country Club, where Nick Price will defend his title.
"It's certainly exciting," Utley said. "I have completely focused on teaching golf and have played maybe two events a year. As this year rolled up and I became age-eligible for the Champions Tour, I kind of sat down and made a goal. Initially, I'd like to check out my game for about six events and continue with my teaching and corporate out."
Utley celebrated his 50th birthday in January. The Toshiba Classic is the first event for which he tried to Monday qualify, and he made it. Utley shot 67 at Goose Creek Golf Club in Mira Loma.
What happens after Utley gets his feet wet in those first few Champions Tour events?
"I would have to play really well," he said. "I'm not going to predict anything. I love the teaching side of my career. And I have no big anticipation of how I might do. People ask me, 'How are you playing.' I haven't kept my score for a long time and until you play, you don't know."
It's not a defense mechanism against any potential disappointment.
"It's a big taste of reality," Utley said. "For lots of us who had a career like mine, so many hard times as a player, I feel overwhelmed and blessed to have a career now teaching golf. I've been far more successful with my teaching than with playing.
"For a long period of time I said I was a player who taught. I think I grew out of that and realized it's likely I'm much better at teaching than playing. I love the teaching side."
Utley, a Missouri native, turned professional in 1984. He won the 1989 Chattanooga Open on the PGA TOUR and three times on the Nationwide Tour -- the 1993 Cleveland Open and the Louisiana Open and Miami Valley Open in 1995.
Utley's strength was always in the short game. He is a whiz around the greens and holds the PGA TOUR record for fewest putts in nine holes -- 6 -- at the 2002 Air Canada Championship.
What he discovered along the way is that he is as good as relating his ability and knowledge to others. That's not something easily done. It takes a certain intellectual capacity and talent to convey the message. Utley has it. His list of students over the years has been impressive, including Champions Tour players Jay Haas, Craig Stadler and Peter Jacobsen; and Sergio Garcia and Darren Clarke among others. Haas credits his resurgence as a Champions Tour major winner to Utley's help.
In the process, Utley has gained a well-deserved reputation as one of golf's top instructors.
As an author, Utley has produced four excellent instructional books: "The Art of Putting", "The Art of the Short Game", "The Art of Scoring" and "The Art of the Swing."
The Art of Putting, published in 2006, was the first. In it, Utley breaks down the putting stroke and teaches how to attain and keep a repeatable stroke. He does it in a straightforward way and in his typically unassuming manner.
"The biggest thing I would say that has helped my game is my friends now are some of the best teachers in the world," Utley said. "Meeting Jim Hardy radically improved my swing. Hanging out with Mike Adams a lot over the past three, four years has radically improved my knowledge. I'm rubbing shoulders with the best teachers. I sit and hang out and chat with Butch Harmon and realize he coaches the whole game, he doesn't just coach swing.
"Being around guys like that makes my teaching way better but also has enlightened me as a player. It's been huge."
As Utley embarks this week on his Champions Tour career, he is likely to find out just how huge it has been.
Champions Tour Insider Vartan Kupelian is a freelance contributor for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR. He can be reached at email@example.com.