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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

Breakthrough moment for 41-year-old rookie Gary Christian

Gary Christian smiles as he walks off of

Gary Christian smiles as he walks off of the 18th hole green during the first round of The Barclays on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park. (Aug. 23, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

Considering Gary Christian's impeccable sense of timing, you would have to say he was just right in waiting until age 40 to become a PGA Tour rookie this season. The man decided to become a New York Rangers fan in 1994.

The family that was supporting his fledgling golf career back then in Birmingham, Ala., liked hockey and watched a lot of Flyers games. Christian wanted to root for someone different, so he picked a division rival.

"It just so happened the Rangers did quite well that year," said Christian, who had not been aware that some of his new team's followers had waited 54 years for the Stanley Cup.

He still loves the Blueshirts and was not troubled to be in Islanders territory Thursday at Bethpage Black as he became the most unlikely name among the first-round leaders at the Barclays.

He was as many strokes under par as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy combined. For Christian, shooting 66 was the sort of thing that would make a tour rookie feel, to quote Rangers announcer Sam Rosen, "This one will last a lifetime."

"On a beast like this, to shoot 5 under, it's almost about as good as you can play," Christian said. It was even more impressive when you take into account the road he had taken to reach this year's FedEx Cup playoffs.

Christian finally broke through with a win at the Mylan Classic last September, capping six years on the Nationwide Tour, which followed six years on mini-tours, which followed stints as a knife salesman ($11.88 an hour for Cutco), a bartender and a country club's membership coordinator.

Metaphorically speaking, his wait was the equivalent of a recreational golfer sleeping in his car overnight to get a chance to play Bethpage Black. In other words, Christian was the perfect person to stand out yesterday on The People's Course.

The man from Carshalton, England, who turned 41 this month, is the kind of guy Bethpage can appreciate, willing to grind it out and wait it out. "I'm a very young 41," he said.

He did not become a pro until he was 27 because he admittedly had not been good enough coming out of Auburn. But he was good enough to keep trying in golf's minor leagues, even after the year he missed getting his tour card by one shot at qualifying school.

"Well, I was making money every year. My wife was supportive, my family was supportive, the in-laws were supportive, my sponsors were supportive," he said. "If I had the pressure of somebody saying 'We can't give you money next year,' or a wife telling me, 'We really need to do something else,' it might have been a harder decision. I'm very much a realist. And I can honestly say I improved pretty much every year.

"I don't think it's an unbelievably strange or different story, but obviously it is, just from looking at the statistics of how many people get to become a rookie at 40."

Even he never saw this kind of rookie year coming. A practice round with Tom Watson, his hero. He met Bill Clinton, Arnold Palmer, Clint Eastwood and Nick Faldo. Plus, he got to spend a couple nights at Wayne Gretzky's home in California. Christian played with Gretzky's wife, Janet, in a Nationwide pro-am last year, and she invited him to stay with the family. So there he was in January, watching a Rangers game with The Great One.

That was his greatest thrill until Thursday, when the fellow who never had been in a Masters, U.S. Open, British Open or PGA had a great day on the big course.

"To me," the oldest rookie said, "this is my first major."

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