There was a time, not all that long ago in the big picture of life, when golf was little more than a hobby to David Hutsell.
As a teenager growing up in Havre de Grace, Hutsell dreamed about playing in the World Series, not any of golf's four major championships. He was a good pitcher and a third baseman, and was good enough to play baseball at UMBC and Towson. He certainly wasn't obsessed with golf the way most future pros are in their teenage years.
"Golf was just something I did when baseball season was over," Hutsell said. "I didn't take it that seriously. I'd just go out and hack it around with my dad or brother. I didn't even have a handicap because we didn't even have a golf team at my high school. When I got to college, I was probably somewhere between a 12 and a 15 [handicap]."
When you consider he only started to focus seriously on golf after elbow surgery ended his baseball career, it makes Hutsell's appearance in this week's 2011 PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club all the more impressive.
Hutsell, a tall, wide-shouldered 40-year-old, who is now a teaching professional at Elkridge Country Club in Baltimore, will be competing in the PGA Championship for the second consecutive year. He qualified to play at Whistling Straits a year ago as one of the top 20 club professionals in the country, and didn't play his best, shooting 75-80 to miss the cut. But Hutsell's journey back to the PGA Championship in 2011 should give him a serious boost of confidence to go with the experience he earned on the big stage a year ago.
In June, Hutsell won the Maryland Open, then followed it up by winning the PGA Professional National Championship in a three-way playoff at Hershey Country Club in Pennsylvania. The national title was Hutsell's first, and he earned it with a clutch birdie on the second playoff hole. That meant that of the thousands of club professionals around the country, he earned the right to say, at least in 2011, he's the best.
Not a bad accomplishment for someone who only didn't seriously consider making golf a career until he joined the maintenance crew at Mount Pleasant Golf Course during college. After spending his mornings mowing fairways or aerating greens, he'd play the course and his handicap plummeted. In 1992, his junior year of college, Towson decided to form a golf team. Hutsell tried out and made it, and remarkably, he's been gradually getting better ever since.
"I think there is a certain amount of surprise that I've gotten to where I've gotten to in a relatively short amount of time," Hutsell said recently between giving afternoon lessons. "But I think I probably benefited from not playing all that much. You see a lot of juniors burning out at a young age because they practice so much, they play so much, they travel so much. It makes it hard to keep your desire to play. I honestly play about once a week unless I'm playing in a big event. I think that kind of keeps my juices flowing because when I get that opportunity, I look forward to it."
Hutsell tried to earn his way onto the PGA Tour a few times. He played on the minor tours for a few years and went to the PGA Tour Qualifying School twice, but he never advanced past the second stage.
"I did OK, but never well enough to earn a living," Hutsell said.
He says he learned over the years that he liked teaching just as much, if not more, than playing. Watching his pupils improve, and break 80 for the first time, was just as satisfying as going out on his own and shooting in the 60s.
"I think everybody has to find their own niche in the golf business," Hutsell said. "After experiencing every aspect of it, I decided that teaching was really the way I wanted to go. My education background at Towson, being a physical education teacher helped me a lot with that. I think I do things a little differently that most people. I try to lead people in certain directions. I don't tell them 'You have to do this to hit this shot.' I try to let them get there themselves, and I think they understand it better as a result."
Hutsell isn't the longest hitter, but he hits a lot of fairways and has been putting aggressively this year, and he attributes his recent success to his lack of fear on the greens. He joked that some of his students have been teasing him recently about how well he's been playing, wondering why, if he's such a good player, he hasn't taught them how to play at that level, too.
"It certainly does lend credibility," Hutsell said. "People understand that you know what you're talking about. The other side of the coin though, there are plenty of good players out there who couldn't give a lesson to save their life. They just do it, and they may not even understand all the aspects of it. So the ability to do both is something I'm very proud of."
Hutsell admits he felt a bit in awe a year ago at Whistling Straits. He traveled to Wisconsin to play the course a month ahead of time, and studied the layout and the yardage obsessively. But nothing could prepare him for the pressures of playing in a major championship. It was like playing golf in the middle of a circus.
"The biggest difference is just getting used to the size of the event," Hutsell said. "I've played in a lot of tournaments, and we have ropes up at our club professionals national championship. But there is just a lot more going on at a major. There are so many more people around on the golf course. You really have to work hard to block it out."
Hutsell's goals for this week are understandably modest. He'd like play well enough to make the cut, and make the case that club professionals — no matter how unique their journey to get there — deserve a spot in the championship.
"You don't go just to go," Hutsell said. "You want to play well and show that club professionals can play. Because there are a lot of guys on the Tour that have the mind set 'What are these guys doing here? They're taking a spot away from somebody else.' They don't outwardly say it, but we know it's there. So it makes us proud when we go out there and beat those guys."