WEB.COM TOUR INSIDER
Air Force veteran Whitney pursuing golf dreams
July 29, 2015
By Kevin Prise, PGATOUR.COM
- Tom Whitney will make his Web.com Tour debut at this week's Utah Championship presented by Zions Bank. (Courtesy of the Air Force Academy)
Tom Whitney spent the majority of his Air Force career as a nuclear missile operator, working 24-hour shifts with a partner underground in a hardened facility, taking orders directly from United States Strategic Command – which took orders directly from President Barack Obama.
Whitney fulfilled a four-year term on active duty before leaving the military in May 2014 to pursue a career in professional golf. He very much enjoyed his time in the Air Force, and he still feels a part of it – “it’s kind of like one big fraternity; I don’t know if you ever quite leave it.”
But from the time his father introduced him to the game at the age of 7, golf was Whitney’s driving passion, and he felt he owed it to himself to give the game 100 percent once he fulfilled his military requirements. He has, and he hopes that he can represent the Air Force through professional golf.
“The reason I separated from the military was that I was just a little more passionate about golf,” said Whitney, 26. “I also feel like I’m able to be more productive and influential on the golf course for the military, than if I was actually in the military.
“If you look at it from a PR or recruiting standpoint, I feel like I may have a good opportunity to bring some young guys into the Academy or to enlist from seeing my success on the golf course, rather than if I was staying put.”
Whitney took a major step toward that goal this week, successfully navigating the Monday qualifier for the Web.com Tour’s Utah Championship presented by Zions Bank, just outside Salt Lake City. He fired 5-under 67 in the qualifier at Oakridge Country Club, then survived a nine-man playoff for eight spots. It will be his first career start in a PGA TOUR-sanctioned event.
The Lake Tahoe, California, native knows that giving up a stable military income to “chase that little white ball around” was a risk, especially with a young family – Whitney and his wife Jess have a 2-year-old son and a 2-month-old daughter.
Jess is still on active duty, working as an ROTC instructor at Colorado State University, and Whitney hopes that he can eventually earn enough money at golf where Jess can focus on raising the family.
He’s not there yet – although victories like the Waterloo Open in Iowa two weeks ago, where he earned $55,000, will go a long way. And he knows that outside of Billy Hurley III, who served on active duty in the Navy before turning professional and earning his PGA TOUR card, modern examples of a successful transition from the military to professional golf are rare.
But Whitney has drawn confidence from his season on the eGolf Gateway Tour last fall, where he produced three consecutive runner-up finishes en route to a fifth-place finish on the money list – and from success in military events during his time on active duty.
All four years, he won the Air Force Golf Championship. Three times, he won the United States Armed Forces Golf Championship. And in 2012, he won CISM, the world military golf championship.
“That was a lot of fun,” said Whitney. “I was able to carry around the title of best golfer in the United States military while I was on active duty.”
Whitney grew up playing golf with his older brother Bob, who is currently an Air Force captain, an intelligence officer stationed in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Bob was recruited to Air Force in the early 2000s, received a golf scholarship and enrolled in 2004. Tom visited frequently during Bob’s first two years and was intrigued. He was recruited as well, also awarded a scholarship, and enrolled in fall 2006.
“I visited Bob a handful of times and just really liked the campus, the feel, the team, the golf course,” said Whitney. “And then just the idea, the challenge of the military and having the opportunity to serve as well.
“I applied there and followed in my brother’s footsteps, and enjoyed almost every minute at the Academy. Pretty much every minute after my freshman year.”
Whitney immediately made a positive impression in the eyes of coach George Koury, who admired Whitney for his fearless attitude both on and off the golf course.
Earlier this week, Koury laughed while reminiscing about Whitney’s varied outfits – staples included a “big bucket hat” and tube socks – and his willingness to go against the grain.
“He was definitely not your typical Air Force cadet,” said Koury. “He was very much free-spirited. He didn’t care what anyone thought or felt. He thought he was better than you on the golf course, but in a good way.
“As a coach, you encourage most kids to play the percentages. But Tom likes to play Tom.”
And it worked. Whitney won four times during college, accruing various records along the way such as low 18-hole score, low 36-hole score, low 54-hole score, and lowest season stroke average.
Koury recalls being most impressed by Whitney’s victory at the 2006 Service Academy Classic – “he was a freshman, the low guy on the pole, and he went out and rocked the field … he didn’t bat an eye” – and by his victory at the 2009 Desert Shootout, where he opened with 64 and did not relent.
Three days after graduation in May 2010, Whitney got married and turned professional immediately, knowing that his military schedule would allow him to play only a handful of events each year.
His inaugural training assignment was at Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California; he made his professional golf debut at a Pepsi Tour event in January 2011, and he won.As a coach, you encourage most kids to play the percentages. But Tom likes to play Tom.
After completing training at Vandenberg, Whitney was transferred to Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where he began his role as a nuclear missile operator.
“We were directly hooked up to the nuclear missiles,” said Whitney. “We were in charge of maintenance, security, exercise, tests … and then ultimately, we were the ones that would turn the keys and watch if the President sent the order.”
Each 24-hour shift was called an alert, and a standard schedule would put Whitney on eight alerts each month, with an additional five days of training.
Because of his unique job that involved spending many nights in control centers, Whitney had the chance to play enough golf to keep his game on point.
“Fortunately, when you return from alert, sometimes you’re home by 3 or 4 p.m.,” said Whitney. “In summers up here, it gets dark at 9, and I took advantage of that. I would go out on the weekdays where I was home early, and on the weekends when I wasn’t on alert.
“So I was able to keep my game sharp, although looking back I didn’t really do much practicing, just because when I wasn’t working, I wanted to be playing. I didn’t have the desire to grind it out on the range … I would much rather work on stuff on the course and figure out shots there, rather than beating a couple hundred balls.”
Whitney separated from the military on May 1, 2014, and his debut event as a full-time golfer came at the eGolf Tour’s Avondale Open in Palm Desert, California, the following week. He followed a familiar pattern, shooting 69-65-64 and winning by four.
“That was pretty awesome,” said Whitney. “That just reaffirmed the decision I made to forego a secure job with a stable income to chase this silly game.”
While at Vandenberg, fresh out of the Academy, Whitney tracked down Hurley, who had recently secured his TOUR card.
Without a clear idea of how to balance military duty and golf practice, Whitney picked Hurley’s brain on how things worked, procedures, “any tips or tricks that he had.”
“He was definitely a great resource,” said Whitney of Hurley. “And he still is today, if I have any questions about how things are working.”
Moving forward, Whitney hopes to make the cut this week and hopefully finish inside the top 25, which would give him a spot in the field at next week’s Digital Ally Open in the Kansas City area.
He fell short at first stage of the Web.com Tour Qualifying Tournament last fall, but he plans on giving it another shot this year. He had seven three-putts at First Stage last year, missing the cut by three, and since then he has been able to build a “repeatable pre-shot routine, with more consistency” on his putting stroke, which has helped him to success throughout the past few months.
While many other aspiring professional golfers have the chance to turn their full attention to the game upon college graduation, Whitney had more pressing matters to take care of: four years of active duty in the Air Force.
It may seem like a disadvantage at first glance, but Whitney believes he is better for it. And he believes that time will prove him right.
“Granted, I didn’t get to go full-throttle right after I graduated, but at the same time I was learning life skills that are integral to being successful on the golf course,” said Whitney. “Time management, determination, patience … just all these attributes that a fresh, young college graduate might not have.
“I feel like the real-life pressures and responsibility are sometimes the motivating factors, because the paychecks that I earn out there, they go directly to the family. Every check that I cash is definitely welcome, and we’re moving that much closer to me being able to provide for the family.”
Coach Koury certainly believes, as well.
“I’m very proud of what he has done,” said Koury. “I was watching the scoring for the Monday qualifier, then he called when he was done with the playoff … it was exciting for all of us.
“It’s difficult, but there’s a reason you’re talking to me. It’s a heck of a story. He’s fairly young, but he’s definitely got a pretty good roadmap.”