First time is a major charm

Published 7:19 pm Saturday, July 2, 2011

Dougherty: Sean Dougherty earned a berth into the PGA Championship in August by finishing tied for eighth at the 44th PGA Professional National Championship Sunday-Wednesday at the Hershey Country Club in Hershey, Pa. Dougherty is a Nansemond-Suffolk Academy alum and is the head professional at Milburn Country Club in Overland Park, Kan.

Sean Dougherty was already preparing for an important golf tournament during the second week of August.

Dougherty, a former golf and basketball standout at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, is the head golf professional at Milburn Country Club in Overland Park, Kan. He qualified for a PGA Nationwide Tour event, a step down from the PGA Tour, in Springfield, Mo.

Instead of playing in the Price Cutter Charity Championship Presented by Dr. Pepper from Aug. 11-14, thanks to how Dougherty played in his first-ever PGA Professional National Championship, he’s playing in the 93rd PGA Championship that week at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga.

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“This is kind of a dream come true. I’m going to work hard for the next month and give it my best shot,” Dougherty said.

On Monday, Dougherty broke Sam Snead’s 40-year-old record in the PGA Professional National Championship, the PGA’s annual tournament for club professionals held this summer at Hershey Country Club’s two courses in Hershey, Pa.

On Wednesday, Dougherty clinched his spot into the PGA Championship by finishing tied for eighth in the field of 312 pros vying for 20 berths into the major.

On Friday morning, Dougherty was back at Milburn Country Club catching up and planning ahead.

“Right now I’m just trying to get everything calmed down at the club here because I’ve been gone for eight days,” Dougherty said.

“I have an outstanding staff here, so everything’s fine, but I have duties here to take care of. That’s my job first and foremost,” he said.

Dougherty graduated from NSA in 1997 and UNC-Wilmington in 2001. Prior to his senior year as a Seahawk, Dougherty won the 2000 Eastern Amateur, one of the best and oldest amateur tournaments in the country, at Elizabeth Manor Country Club in Portsmouth.

After college, Dougherty played professionally on mini tours trying to climb the ladder to the PGA Tour. If the Nationwide Tour is triple-A, Dougherty was playing in leagues deeper down the farm system.

Dougherty became an assistant pro at Milburn in 2008 and the head professional this April. Along the way, he also met his wife, Courtney, who lived in Prairie Village, a suburb of Kansas City like Overland Park.

“That’s really how I got out here. Milburn was my first job as a pro. I’d worked at plenty of other courses in the clubhouse, as a caddie, those sorts of things,” Dougherty said.

Dougherty earned his PGA Professional Class A certification last year and one of the privileges with the promotion is entering the PGA Professional National Championship. Qualifying, with Dougherty making it out of one of 41 regions, takes place 10 months ahead of the tournament.

“I took it very seriously, practicing as much as I could leading up to it,” Dougherty said.

“At the same time, this is the club’s (Milburn) busiest time of year, so I’ve been practicing when events here, and giving lessons, and my schedule all allows. All the members have been very supportive though. They allowed me a little more time to practice. They knew about the possible benefits to the club if I could go there and play well,” he said.

Dougherty fired rounds of 67 and 64 for a 12-under par total through two rounds, giving him the lead and the tournament’s 36-hole record, one stroke under Snead’s mark of 132 in 1971.

The eight-under par 64 was a pristine scorecard; eight birdies and 10 pars, including a streak of four straight birdies to end the front nine.

Dougherty didn’t know anything about the record, or about being atop the leaderboard, until he completed his round on Monday.

“I was just trying to get as many under par as possible because of the other guys in the field,” Dougherty said.

His rounds cooled off in the last two rounds, with scores of 72 and 76 to finish six-under par, still easily within the cut for the PGA Championship.

A couple runs to the sectional rounds of U.S. Open Qualifying had been the closest Dougherty was to a major tournament, or any PGA Tour event.

Making, and now practicing for, a major championship only adds to the unique tasks on Dougherty’s slate though.

In late November 2010, Milburn’s clubhouse burnt down. Late 2012 is the projected date for moving into a newly-built clubhouse.

“It burned down, completely to the ground. Right now, we’re operating out of a trailer unit. It’s a nice trailer though,” Dougherty said. “The members are very supportive and they’ve been understanding with everything.”

Family and friends, including teammates and classmates going back to NSA, were in touch with Dougherty during, and especially after, the tournament in Hershey.

“I had a lot of encouragement, a lot of support, from Kansas, Suffolk, the Outer Banks where my parents live, Wilmington,” he said. “It was really nice to have people pulling for me. It felt good to have all that support.”

If it’s a dream, Dougherty doesn’t have to wake up for five weeks.