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August 5, 2008

 

Manning set to live dream

Manning

Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Eric Manning watches his shot recently during practice at the Cortland Country Club for the upcoming PGA Championship.

By TOM VARTANIAN
Staff Writer

Growing up as a golfer, you dream about being your favorite player on the PGA Tour or playing in one of the four major tournaments.
For Cortland Country Club professional Eric Manning, it is time for him to live his dream as the 43-year-old Homer Central School graduate will tee up with the best in the game when the 90th PGA Championship, the final major this season, gets underway in Bloomfield Township, Michigan Thursday.
Manning played for the Trojans, graduating in 1983 with one New York State champion and then at Florida Southern College before turning pro in 1987. He played one full season on the Ben Hogan Tour, now known as the Nationwide Tour, with 28 tournaments in 1990. His best finish was a tie for second in the Kansas City Classic, which ended August 12 of that year. Manning played in three more Hogan events over the next two seasons and has played in the B.C. Open, now Turning Stone Resort Championship, the last three seasons. That is his only PGA Tour experience, but not many players can say that their fourth PGA Tour event is a major.
“This is my biggest tournament to date,” said Manning. “It doesn’t get much bigger than playing in a major. I am not going to try and do anything different. I have to approach it that it is just another golf tournament and play the best I can. I have to play the course and not the other guys.”
Of course, the other guys are not the usual field of golfers that Manning has encountered at the B.C. Open, but the cream of the crop. Only the best compete in the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA Championship. The only big name that Manning would have to contend with is Tiger Woods, who is recovering from his knee and led injuries and has taken the rest of the 2008 season off.
Just to qualify for the PGA Championship was a challenge in itself. Manning qualified for the PGA Championship with a top-20 finish at the PGA Professional National Championship in Greensboro, Georgia, in June. It was a clutch birdie putt on the final hole that secured his first chance to play in a major event.
“I had to finish in the top 20 against the best club pros in the country,” Manning explained. “That tournament is really our major for all the club pros. To finish in the top 20 and represent all the club pros is really quite an honor.”
Manning is in elite company from the Central New York area with only Mel Baum qualifying for a couple of U.S. Open Tournaments and a couple of players in the 1970s qualifying for the PGA Championship.
“It was always a dream of mine to play in a major tournament,” Manning said. “It just took a little longer than I expected. Once I became a club pro, I thought I could qualify for the PGA Championship. It has taken some time, but I have achieved that goal.”
Manning will arrive in Michigan Monday morning and was planning to play at least nine holes in the afternoon. Manning will then get full 18-hole practice rounds Tuesday and Wednesday, plus plenty of time of the practice greens and driving range at Oakland Hills Country Club before teeing off at 2:40 p.m. Thursday with George McNeill and James Kingston on the 10th hole. The same trio will tee-it-up on the first hole Friday at 9:30 a.m. with hopes of making the cut for the final two rounds over the weekend. TNT (Time-Warner Cable Channel 33 in Cortland) will televised first and second round action from 1 p.m. until 7 p.m., so there is a chance that manning could see some TV time. The final two rounds will be broadcast by CBS (TW channel 5) from 2 p.m. until 7 p.m. TNT will have some early-round coverage Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m.
There is a small local contingent heading to Bloomfield Township to support Manning and his bid to PGA Championship glory.
“It does feel good to have some of the members from the club interested enough to travel all the way there to watch me play golf,” Manning said. “Hopefully I will make it worth their while.
“I am just a guy who grew up in Homer and I play golf,” he continued. “I really do not think of myself as anyone special. My daughter does not look at me any different. Whether I win this tournament or not, she will not look at me any different and that really helps keep things in perspective.”
That is the other big change in Manning’s life over the past 18 months. He is now married and enjoys life with his wife Kaeti and their one-year-old daughter, Reagan.
“It really makes the good rounds that much better and the bad rounds, not so bad,” Manning said. “None if it really matters to her.”
Manning was the assistant club pro at Cortland CC before heading to the Yahnundasis Golf Club in New Hartford last season before returning to Cortland to become the head professional this season.
“It really has been a whirlwind over the past few months,” Manning said. “It has been a pretty good time though.”
Manning has had success on the Central New York PGA as a three-time PGA Section Player of the Year. 2008 has been another good year on that front as well.
“I am playing pretty good,” Manning said of his local season. “I have been consistent, even though I have missed a couple of tournaments. I will be missing one of our local majors Monday, but I think I will be having a pretty good time this week anyways. This really has been the best year I have ever had.”
Though he has never made the cut during his B.C. Open/Turning Stone appearance, what would making the cut at the PGA Championships mean to Manning?
“That would be the dream within the dream,” Manning replied. “It would be something to play good enough to make the cut and, once you make the cut, you never know. I know back in the late 1960s, one of the club pros finished fourth. There is always that chance. I know I can play. It will just be a question of whether I can play with everything else that is going on.”
What will Manning’s daily routine at Michigan?
“It is just like you see on TV,” Manning said. “I will get to the course an hour or more before my round starts. I will warm-up and then hit some shots in preparation from what I learned from my practice rounds, shots that I may need to make that day. I will then play my round and return to the practice area to work on some problems that may have come up during the round. It will really be an eight or nine-hour day.”
To reach this point in his career, there are lots of people to thank.
“I really have to thank Aldor Jones and Bob McCarthy,” Manning said. “They were the club pros here when I started. More recently, I have worked a lot with my friend from Skaneateles, Mike Bennett. He teaches a number of guys out on the tour. ”
“Of course,” Manning added. “I cannot forget my parents. If it were not for them, I would have not played golf. They played, so I played and I liked it. I have to thank them for so much.”
Manning does have top-notch equipment, thanks to a sponsorship from Taylor Made.
“Taylor Made has been my sponsor for the past four years,” Manning said. “They have been very good to me as far as getting me the things I need to improve my game.”
All the pieces have fallen into place for Eric Manning recently. He has been living his dream, personally, and now he came live his dream, professionally, for at least one week.