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Local pro Shawn Baker qualifies for Senior PGA Championship

Shawn Baker, Director of Golf at The Greens

Shawn Baker, Director of Golf at The Greens at Half Hollow, looks on from the golf course on Friday, May 15, 2015. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Every few minutes the other day, a member would stop in at Shawn Baker's office and wish him the time of his life in the tournament of his career. The head pro at The Greens at Half Hollow in Melville leaves Sunday for the Senior PGA Championship in French Lick, Indiana.

Baker got through a playoff in the Metropolitan PGA tournament last fall, then finished 11th at the national club pro championship in Florida in November. So the 52-year-old will tee it up Thursday alongside Hall of Famers and other top Champions Tour players.

"The reality of it is there are 35 club pros who make it into this tournament and only rarely does someone make the cut. So you don't have any illusions. It's tough to walk out of the pro shop, go to Indiana and compete with guys who play golf for a living," he said.

But that is exactly the kind of challenge that drives him. He grew up in Vermont, where he was a competitive skier, and he was an All-America golfer at Central Connecticut. Having turned pro and playing in Florida 18 years ago, he was told he needed to come to New York because of its courses and competition.

Baker worked eight years at Mill River, where he met his wife, Kate, who is his assistant pro at The Greens. For the past 10 years, he has been the head pro at a course that he says, "is what golf really ought to be nowadays -- very forgiving fairways, par 60 and immaculately maintained. It's really a return to adolescence for people 55 and older."

Like all other Long Island courses, it was covered with snow for months, which made practicing for his big event a challenge. But snow never was a problem for someone whose dad was in the ski business.

"The fact that I grew up where golf was out of the question for seven or eight months was at times a good thing," he said. "You really looked forward to spring."

17-hole qualifier

U.S. Golf Association historians are doing research to determine if the 17-hole local U.S. Open qualifier at Bethpage Red Thursday was the first such abbreviated tournament in Open history.

Brian Mahoney, director of rules and competition for the Metropolitan Golf Association, which conducted the event, said in an email that the fourth hole was closed because of "winter kill" on the green. After consulting with the USGA, the MGA decided on April 27 that the qualifier would be 17 holes. After entries closed two days later, all of the golfers were told about the ruling.

Mahoney added that the green actually is fine now, and has been since Monday. But tournament officials thought it would be unfair to the players to change the layout since many of them had not practiced on No. 4. He said that the MGA takes pride in running championships and USGA qualifying rounds "and we are most thankful for facilities like Bethpage for their support and assistance."

Kyle Higgins of Massapequa advanced at a local qualifier in White Plains Wednesday. He, like the seven who qualified at Bethpage, will play in the 36-hole sectional qualifier in Westchester June 8.

Jeter takes up the game

Noted golf coach David Leadbetter, whose students include top LPGA player Lydia Ko, is working with Derek Jeter, who has taken up golf in retirement. "He's going to be fine. He's very disciplined. He seems to have a real bug for the game," Leadbetter said on Sirius XM's Mad Dog Radio channel.

The teacher disputed the notion that the golf swing is like the baseball swing, saying that pitchers often make better golfers because of a similarity of lower-body movements in pitching and swinging. Anyway, of Jeter, he said, "I think we'll get him there."

LPGA at Westchester

LPGA players believe the best part of the upcoming Women's PGA Championship June 11-14 is the venue: tournament-proven Westchester Country Club. They are undaunted by the small crowds that attended the past few men's tournaments there. Inbee Park said, "It's fun to watch and obviously we are a lot more friendly."

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