The 36-year-old rookie
After more than a decade grinding on various tours, Rob Oppenheim's hard work paid off
April 19, 2016
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Rob Oppenheim earned a PGA TOUR card at last year’s Web.com Tour Championship by a margin slimmer than a fingernail. When you’ve been waiting more than a decade to make it to golf’s highest level, it’s sort of fitting that it should be so dramatic.
A U.S. Open champion’s bogey on the final hole of the Web.com Tour season, which happened while Oppenheim was fueling up his car for another journey back to Orlando, gave new meaning to 13 years of toil. That bogey, by Lucas Glover, bumped Oppenheim from 13th to 12th on the Web.com Tour Championship’s leaderboard, adding a little income at the end of the season.
Professional golf on any level below the PGA TOUR isn’t a good way to get rich, so of course the extra money was welcome, especially when you’re married and your second child is on the way. That extra cash wouldn’t just pay for diapers, but also the flights and rental cars and chain-restaurant meals that come with a career that requires 20-plus weeks of travel per year.
But dollars are more than legal tender on the Web.com Tour. Those additional earnings pushed Oppenheim ahead of Eric Axley on the meritocracy known as the Web.com Tour Finals Priority Rankings. Oppenheim’s phone hadn’t displayed Glover’s bogey yet, but the congratulatory text messages and then the phone call from a PGA TOUR official were all Oppenheim needed to know it had finally happened. The PGA TOUR card that he’d started chasing in 2002 was finally his.
The top 50 players on the Web.com Tour Priority Rankings earn PGA TOUR cards for the following season. The final standings?
50. Rob Oppenheim, $32,206
51. Eric Axley, $32,105
That’s right. The difference was $101.
There have been older rookies in PGA TOUR history, but most either plied their trade overseas or remained amateur before giving the PGA TOUR a try. Oppenheim had endured more than 13 years on mini-tours before making it to golf’s highest level.
For several years, he played upwards of 100 events per year, everything from single-day events to Monday qualifiers and 72-hole tournaments on what is now known as Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada. He barnstormed across the country in a white Honda Accord from his college days and, for the rare occasions he was home, rented a room in the house of his college golf coach to save money.
There were two victories in Canada, and wins at state opens throughout his native New England, but just three PGA TOUR starts were sprinkled in among all those tournaments he played between 2002 and 2015.
“If I was playing baseball or basketball, I wouldn’t get drafted,” Oppenheim said. “They’re not drafting a 35-year-old guy, which I completely get. Golf, if you shoot the scores, you can do it. No one’s there to stop you. That’s what always kept me going.”
No scout’s negative report or general manager’s opinion can keep someone off the PGA TOUR. That can be comforting. But imagine the frustration when one ill-timed mishit can defer the dream for another year. That’s why the encouragement of friends and family was so important, as well.
“If you don’t have that, at the end of the day, it can get kind of lonely beating your head in and this and that. I think they helped keep encouraging me,” Oppenheim said. “There’s no question when you do it for that long, you get plenty of doubt. But to have friends and family keep you positive and keep you grinding. There’s no question that’s what kept me going for as long as I have.”
This week’s Valero Texas Open will be Oppenheim’s ninth start of the season. He’s 161st in the FedExCup; his best finish is a tie for 20th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard.
He has work to do to keep that card he’d worked so long to earn, but compared to where he was two years ago …
Getting to Know: Rob Oppenheim
It can be discouraging to feel like the out-of-place old guy. That’s how Oppenheim felt on the putting green of that mini-tour event two years ago in Ocala, Florida. He’d spent the previous four years on the Web.com Tour, but missed 15 of 20 cuts in 2013 and didn’t fare much better at the Qualifying Tournament in La Quinta, California.
With a wife and daughter back home, Oppenheim couldn’t help but wonder where his career may be headed. Without Web.com Tour status, he entered an event on the Hooters Tour, one of the many circuits he’d frequented during the seven years before he first earned a Web.com Tour card. Oppenheim was 34.
“I used to, when I played the mini-tours, I knew everyone, so it was still fun,” Oppenheim said. “I go up there and I’m kind of the old guy. I don’t know anyone. It’s all young college kids.
“I was staying by myself in a hotel. I finished somewhere like 15th. I just barely covered my expenses. I was like, ‘I can’t be leaving my daughter and my wife and spend weeks on the road and lose money.’ I remember talking to my father and saying, ‘If I can’t get full status on the Web.com Tour, I may have to start thinking about doing something else.’”
It didn’t take long for that to happen. A few weeks later, he Monday qualified for a Web.com Tour event in Valdosta, Georgia, and finished fourth. He was back on the tour, finishing 79th on the money list. At that year’s Q-School, a hole-in-one in the final round gave him the full status he was seeking heading into 2015.
“It’s amazing when you can look back and connect the little points like if this didn’t happen, who knows where it could have gone,” Oppenheim said. “I’ve always had things, fortunately enough, happen at the right time that have propelled me and allowed me to keep it going.
“But I feel like in golf, if you keep trying and keep working hard, if you keep giving yourself chances, something will happen.”
He’s a testament to that.
It started at the 1999 U.S. Amateur. That’s where Oppenheim, who’d just completed his freshman season at Division II Rollins College, first thought he may make a living at this game one day.
In addition to golf, Rob had played basketball and baseball at Andover High School in Massachusetts. Rollins, in the Orlando suburb of Winter Park, was the only school interested in having him on its golf team; his dad Jim had played basketball there. A full year of sunny weather and a singular focus on one sport did wonders for Rob’s game. He qualified for his first U.S. Amateur, at Pebble Beach Golf Links, no less.
You expect to see elite players, future PGA TOUR winners and major champions, at the U.S. Amateur, but it’s a bit surprising to see Johnny Miller standing on the first tee. Oppenheim played the first two rounds with Todd Miller, who had his famous father on the bag. Johnny Miller served as a commentator when the tournament reached its match-play rounds.
Oppenheim had been a scrappy second baseman at Andover (Mass.) High School, and some of that same character could be found in his golf game. The pairing gave Johnny Miller a first-hand look at Oppenheim’s game, and he recalls Miller offering this vaguely-complimentary analysis during one of the telecasts.
“He knew I was making everything just to get to match play,” Oppenheim recalls with a slight laugh. “He said, ‘He hits this trap-cut fade. It’s not the best ball flight, but if he keeps this hot putter, he has a chance to be a dark horse.’”
Oppenheim outlasted many elite players – names like Adam Scott, Charles Howell III and Jonathan Byrd – that week, advancing to the Round of 16.
Three years later, his college career at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, ended on an emphatic note. Oppenheim holed a 20-foot birdie putt on the final hole to give Rollins a one-shot victory in the NCAA Division II Championship. He was the national player of the year.
And so, like dozens of college kids each summer, he set out on his pro golf career. A lucky few receive invitations to PGA TOUR events, immediately competing against the best in the world. The rest set out for the mini-tours, driving around the country and just hoping to break even.
Oppenheim's aim was to earn between $75,000 and $100,000 in prize money each year.
“That isn't easy when you’re chipping away playing the mini-tours," he said.
He was the New England Pro Tour’s player of the year in 2005, then won twice in 2006 on the Canadian Tour. He finished second on the money list, which earned him a spot in the RBC Canadian Open. He opened with a 66 before finishing 41st. More importantly, he earned an exemption into Q-School’s second stage, one step from securing status on the Web.com Tour or PGA TOUR.
He didn’t make it through.
“That was like a punch in the stomach,” Oppenheim said. “That was tough because I felt like I was ready. The next couple years were not so good.”
He tried to make changes to ensure his swing would hold up the next time he was under pressure. He played more Monday qualifiers for Web.com Tour events in an attempt to advance to the next level. Sometimes more than 300 players were competing for 14 spots in an event. Shoot 66 and you’re still flying home empty-handed more often than not.
“I’ve seen that route (Monday qualifying) make more people almost quit the game,” Oppenheim said. “But you have to do it. … Those were probably some of my worst years, financially for sure.”
By 2009, Oppenheim needed something good to happen after a couple rough years. Unlike 2006, his game was a bit iffy entering the second stage of the 2009 Q-School. But in the third round he had one of those crucial moments that kept him going. On the 17th hole, he caught his approach shot with a pitching wedge thin. The ball hit the flagstick and fell in the hole for an eagle.
He advanced to final stage for the first time, where he played alongside a kid named Rickie Fowler, who had just turned pro out of Oklahoma State. Oppenheim earned Web.com Tour status for the first time.
He had three good seasons, finishing between 42nd and 44th on the money list between 2010 and 2012.
He won his first Web.com Tour title last year, shooting a final-round 64 while playing several groups ahead of the leaders. Little did he know that the 10-foot par putt he made on the final hole would be the winning margin.
He arrived at the Web.com Tour’s Regular Season finale, the WinCo Foods Portland Open, at No. 24 on the money list. The top 25 at week’s end would earn the first half of the 50 PGA TOUR cards available each year on the Web.com Tour. Oppenheim missed the cut by a shot and fell to 26th on the money list. He was cleaning out his locker on that Sunday, the same day many of his peers would take part in a graduation celebration.
He would make amends weeks later. After 13 years, what’s another few days? The waiting is bearable only when you’re pursuing your passion, though. This journey likely would have ended earlier if Oppenheim wasn’t doing what he loved.
“You have to love doing it. I love golf. I love playing. I love competing,” Oppenheim said. “I just couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”