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GOLF : Sills Was a Big Winner Before His First Victory

It was almost inevitable that when Tony Sills broke through to win his first PGA tournament, the golfing world would be looking the other way.

When Sills ended nearly 20 years of frustration and adversity with a playoff victory over Gil Morgan last Sunday in the Independent Insurance Agent Open at The Woodlands, Tex., Jack Nicklaus was winning his first Senior PGA Tour tournament in Arizona, and Betsy King was drawing closer to the LPGA Hall of Fame with another victory in the Nabisco Dinah Shore.

That Sills, one of only two players from Los Angeles to win on the PGA Tour in recent history, won at all is a remarkable testimony to the 34-year-old golfer’s grit, determination and patience. Not to mention a golf swing he learned while beating balls into a net in Walter Keller’s shop in West Los Angeles.

He had to learn on an indoor driving range because his father couldn’t afford a country club membership, and the L.A. City Recreation and Parks Dept. wouldn’t let him play at Rancho until he was 14--even though he shot a 38 on the course during an age-group tournament when he was 9.

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That, it would turn out, would be one of the lesser problems he would have to deal with.

Sills won the L.A. Junior championship in 1971 and shot several rounds in the high 60s at Riviera, where he worked as a caddie while leading Palisades High School to a championship season. (The only other modern-era tour winner from L.A. City schools was Mac O’Grady, who as Phil McGleno attended Hamilton High).

When Sills turned 18, he was looking forward to playing at USC.

Instead, he was hospitalized with a near-fatal case of colitis that forced him to undergo an ileostomy in which his colon and rectum were removed. He was fitted with an external pouch that he used for 10 years, even when playing golf. His weight fell from 170 pounds to barely 100, and a year later, in 1975, he underwent more surgery for an attack of kidney stones.

Despite this setback, Sills returned to golf, and in 1976, while a student at El Camino College, won the Southern California Amateur championship at California Country Club. Among the players he beat were Scott Simpson, who would later help USC win two NCAA championships and win the U.S. Open, and future professionals Mark O’Meara and John Cook.

The next year, Sills enrolled at USC and played well enough to try for a tour player’s card in 1980. He won the 1981 Queen Mary Open in Long Beach, but it took him six tries before he got his card in 1982.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world just to be playing on the tour,” he said at the time. “I’ve caddied, delivered pizzas, ground clubs at Jerry Barber’s factory, picked up range balls, worked for a beer distributor. You name it, I’ve done it. I can’t believe I’m actually on the tour.”

Sills lost his card three times for failing to earn enough money, but each time he battled back to earn it again.

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In 1984, he underwent an eight-hour operation in which a pouch was formed internally from his lower intestines, so that a tube could be inserted through a hole in his stomach to relieve waste.

“That made it much better for me because I didn’t have to run to the bathroom as much,” he said. “I never felt like I had it rough, though, because my dad had it 10 times worse than I did. He was a diabetic for 20 years and about the time I first became ill, he lost his eyesight and developed cancer. I’ll never feel sorry for myself after seeing what he went through.

“I owe my entire career to my dad. He was the one who got me started. The doctors advised him to take up golf for his health when I was 5, and I tagged along with him and finally started hitting balls.”

Sills had his best year in 1986, when he tied for second in the Phoenix Open, his highest finish in seven years on the tour, and earned more than $200,000 to finish 38th on the PGA Tour money list.

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But he faltered in 1987 and lost his card again. Twice since then, he has been forced to play his way back through the grueling qualifying school.

“My personal life has been devastated for two years with a divorce,” he told reporters after Sunday’s victory. “Divorce is just hell, and you can’t play golf when your personal life is in shambles. I’ve just been trying to make it through a day at a time.”

Last fall, he qualified 27th at The Woodlands--the same course where he won on Sunday--to make it back on tour for the fourth time. Before Sunday, he had earned a modest $55,800 this year and stood 75th on the list. His best finish was a tie for seventh in the Nissan Los Angeles Open.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” he said Sunday. “The leader board was packed with big names, but when no one made a big move, there I was.”

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Sills started the final round of the rain-shortened 54-hole tournament six strokes behind co-leaders Hal Sutton and David Peoples, but he should have known it was going to be his day when he skipped a mis-hit four-iron across a pond on the second hole. Instead of a watery double bogey, Sills sank a 10-foot putt for his par.

With marquee names such as Simpson, Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam, Fred Couples, Larry Mize, Nick Faldo, Sandy Lyle, Bruce Lietzke and Ben Crenshaw hovering near or atop the leader board, Sills sneaked into a share of the lead with four birdies in his final five holes for a seven-under-par 65.

This put him in a playoff with Morgan, a veteran who has won seven tournaments--including the L.A. Open in 1978 and 1983. When Morgan took three putts from 45 feet on the first playoff hole, a 428-yard par-four, Sills won with a tap-in par from about a foot.

It was worth $180,000, more than he earned in the past two seasons combined, but it also got him two years’ exemption from qualifying plus a trip to the Masters and the Tournament of Champions.

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Golf Notes

Annandale GC in Pasadena will play host to the 1993 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship. It will be the club’s second time around. It was held there in 1967, when Mary Lou Dill defeated Jean Ashley in the final. . . . The Players West tour for California-based women professionals will stop this week at Upland Hills CC. A pro-am Monday precedes the 54-hole championship. Beneficiary of the pro-am will be the 1st United Methodist Church of Ontario Food Bank. . . . The SoCal Left Handed Golfers Assn. will hold a lefty-righty tournament Saturday on the Riverside course at Green River.

The 40th annual L.A. City Junior Championships will be played Monday and Tuesday at the Balboa and Encino courses. Last year’s winners were Gerald Wong of California CC and Stephanie Martin of Saticoy CC. . . . Teri Melanson, part-time starter at Rancho Park, apparently isn’t satisfied with being the L.A. City and California State Amateur champion. Playing on her home course, Teri made a hole-in-one on the 167-yard 16th hole. . . . Joe Johns and John Golden shot a net 122 at Wilshire to win the Olin and Mortie Dutra Perpetual Trophy for the two-man better-ball tournament. The score was identical to last year’s winning total by the same team.

Former Indianapolis 500 winners Bobby Rahal and Parnelli Jones will play in the PPG/Beach Charities celebrity tournament on April 17 at Recreation Park before the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Also entered are the Rams’ Jim Everett and the Raiders’ Mike Haynes, football Hall of Famer Dick Butkus, former baseball stars Al Downing and Bobby Grich and actors Tom Poston and Claude Akins. . . . The Seahorse tournament, featuring USC and UCLA players, will be played April 16 at Rolling Hills CC for the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. . . . Another charity event, the NFIC Research Invitational on April 23 at Riviera CC, will benefit the National Foundation for Ileitis and Colitis.

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Mountain View CC in Corona, which had the largest number of Oldsmobile Scramble participants in California last year with 160, is planning another assault on the national four-man team tournament when 1990 qualifying is held on April 19 for seniors 50 and older, April 21 for all others. Both net and gross qualifiers will play on May 4 at Palm Valley CC in Palm Desert for berths in the national finals at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. . . . The Greater Santa Barbara Open will be played April 18-20 at Sandpiper GC, followed by a Spalding Golden State Tour pro-am on April 21 at Vanderberg AFB.


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