KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — Missouri Western State is not exactly a pipeline to the PGA Tour.
Neither is Gallatin, Missouri, a farming community of 1,800 where Brice Garnett honed his game on a nine-hole course. Thirteen years ago, Garnett was finishing up his degree in business finance with every intention of working for a bank.
“Never thought we’d be here, at Kapalua, playing the Tournament of Champions,” Garnett said.
About the only thing he has in common with the other 32 players in the field is winning on the PGA Tour. His victory was last March at the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic.
What sets him apart is not the five years he spent on the Web.com Tour, or even the three years he spent driving across Texas on the Adams Tour in a Chevrolet Equinox his parents gave him for a graduation present.
The PGA Tour is filled with players from big college programs such as Alabama and Oklahoma State, Georgia and Texas. If they don’t stay four years to get a degree, it’s because they’re already prepared to compete against the best in the world.
Garnett is a rarity coming from a school like Missouri Western State, best known as the training camp for the Kansas City Chiefs. He competed against Troy Merritt at Winona State in Minnesota before Merritt — also in the field at Kapalua — transferred to Boise State.
William McGirt, who won the Memorial three years ago, played at Wofford, a Division I school in South Carolina known more for its academics than its golf program.
“There’s a lot of great Division II players that I’ve kept my eye on because I keep up with the guys back home,” Garnett said. “You don’t see a lot pushing through.”
He certainly didn’t see himself doing that.
Garnett played mostly regional golf growing up in Gallatin, and he improved enough to dream about playing for the Missouri Tigers. He wrote the golf coach asking if there was room for him. He remembers the day the letter arrived in the mail.
“I got pulled out of class,” he said. “My dad was there. My mom worked there as a teacher. I went to the principal’s office because the letter got mailed back to the school. They all came out to get the good news. The coach wrote on there: ‘Congratulations on a great junior and high school career, but our team is full. You’re welcome to walk on.’
“I pinned that up in my room in college, used that as motivation.”
It wasn’t until his junior year that Garnett got going, winning 12 times over his last two seasons for the Griffons. Still, this was Missouri Western State. The All-Americans that year included Dustin Johnson and Billy Horschel.
“I had no plans to turn pro until Christmas of my senior year, and Dad brought it to my attention that he might get some money behind me,” Garnett said.
He started on the Adams Tour and worked his way up to the Web.com Tour, where he made only four cuts. Then, it was back to the mini-tours. He was playing in the Carolinas and qualifying for Web.com Tour events when he could and planning for Q-school when his father suggested he fly to Nashville, Tennessee, for another Monday qualifier.
“Man, I was tired,” Garnett said. “He said, ‘It’s $90, go do it.’ I got in the tournament and ended up getting second.”
That got him full status, and two years later he did well enough to make it to the PGA Tour. Three years later, he was back on the Web. But he won twice in 2017 to get his PGA Tour card again, and the 35-year-old finally cashed in with his victory in the Dominican Republic, held opposite a World Golf Championship.
It’s not impossible.
Brian Stuard went to Oakland University in Michigan. Brandon Harkins, in his second year on the PGA Tour, went to Chico State in California. PGA Tour rookie Jim Knous went to Colorado School of Mines.
McGirt said playing golf for a living was a dream when he enrolled at Wofford.
“Did I ever think it would happen? Probably not,” he said.
McGirt recalls an equipment rep from a big company who gave him a driver while he was at Wofford and asked his plans. McGirt told him he was going to try professional golf, and he finally made it to the tour 10 years after he graduated. Before long, he ran into the equipment rep.
“He said: ‘I need to apologize to you. You remember when I gave you a driver in college and asked what you were going to do? When you told me it was to try to play professional golf, I almost told you not to waste your time,’” McGirt said. “You cannot measure what somebody has inside.”
Garnett always thought he had what it would take, no matter how long it took him.
He goes into Sunday’s final round of the Tournament of Champions in a tie for 25th in the 33-man field. It’s his first time at Kapalua. From where he started, just getting here could be considered a victory.