When his 4-foot putt rattled into the cup, Rod Spittle had to tell himself to breathe. Then he tried to hold back tears, but that would prove impossible. For the past five years, the part-time Dunedin resident had been chasing the dream of most every ham-and-egger who ever picked up a golf club: He was trying to become a member of the 50-and-over Champions Tour despite having no professional experience. The journey included plenty of disappointment and near misses, but in the last tournament of the 2010 season, his last chance to make the dream a reality, the putt went in. He had defeated tour veteran Jeff Sluman on the first playoff hole of the AT&T Championship in San Antonio, Texas, on Oct. 31.
The victory made him fully exempt for the 2011 Champions Tour season, which begins Friday in Hawaii. Spittle's business cards now say "Golf Professional."
"It's pretty darn cool,'' he said.
Who is Rod Spittle?
He is a 55-year-old former insurance sales and marketing executive who splits his time between Ohio and Dunedin. He stands 6 feet 5 and has massive hands.
Spittle looks more like a hockey player, which is what he was growing up in the city of Niagara Falls (Ontario). He was a good enough Canadian amateur golfer to earn a scholarship to Ohio State.
By his senior year, Spittle was the Buckeyes' captain. With future PGA professionals John Cook and Joey Sindelar on the team, Spittle had to be awfully good to make the travel roster.
While his teammates went on to earn millions on tour, Spittle opted to start a family. He and his wife, Ann, raised three children in Dublin, Ohio.
"(The PGA Tour) just didn't fit back then,'' Spittle said. "I was a shirt-and-tie guy for 25 years."
But he did take some satisfaction in watching Cook and Sindelar succeed.
"I tell people that I taught John and Joey everything they know and then sent them off to the tour," Spittle said.
Cook doesn't remember it exactly that way.
"A kid from Niagara Falls teaching a kid from Southern California about golf? Hmm, I'm not sure it worked that way,'' Cook joked. "But I had a lot of respect for Rod when I got to school. I thought he was really good. Our qualifiers were pretty competitive. You had to play your rear end off to make that first tournament traveling team. Rod and I battled a couple times. I actually beat him once, and I thought I accomplished something major.
"He just mashed the ball. I thought once he left school he had a real good opportunity to move to the next level. He had that gift of length. But he chose a different direction. Bless him for that."
After years in the corporate world, Spittle's direction was about to change.
When he turned 45, Spittle started thinking about the future. His kids would be out of the house by the time he was 49. If he ramped up his practice time, he might be ready to get on the Champions Tour when he was 50.
He played in some Canadian Tour events when he was 49, and after he turned 50 in July 2005, he qualified for a spot in the SBC Championship in San Antonio, Texas.
He tied for 74th, collecting $992, and it was his only tournament of the year. In 2006 he played in only three events, his highest finish a tie for 20th. He was off to a slow start.
"I've always been blessed with being able to play,'' Spittle said. "But the challenge was to get my game good enough to compete at this level. And I had no frame of reference."
He also found it necessary to find sponsors to get through another year.
"We found out in a hurry that it's a pretty big venture," Spittle said.
Aside from practice, Spittle also decided to head south for the winter. His wife's sister lived in Clearwater, and they chose nearby Dunedin as a winter nest. The Spittles live in a condo at Dunedin Country Club, and he plays the course often.
He returns to Ohio every May, where he is director of golf at Little Turtle Golf Club in Westerville, Ohio.
In 2007, just after the move to Pinellas County, Spittle had a breakthrough, earning enough status to get into every Monday qualifier. He got into 13 tournaments, finished second once and earned $325,151. But his status didn't change. He still had to qualify for every tournament.
That meant nine tournaments in 2008, zero in 2009 and five last year.
"Of course there were times when I got discouraged," Spittle said. "But I'm a very positive person. I always hoped I was able to win. That's what got me up in the morning these past few years. I played just well enough to stay motivated. And whenever I got in a tournament, I was just foolish enough to think I could win. You have to have that attitude to play at this level."
'Just about done'
The AT&T Championship was the last full-field event on the Champions Tour's 2010 calendar. It was also Spittle's last chance to earn a full exemption. If he didn't win, it meant one more crack at Q-school and the likely end of his dream.
Just like every other tournament, he had to qualify on Monday just to get in. Then came an opening-round 66. He followed that with 68, which put him in the next-to-last group with Sluman.
If Spittle couldn't find a way to put together one more good round, it could be the last round he would play on the Champions Tour.
"We were just about done,'' Spittle said. "Had I not gotten a (tour) card, there was a 95 percent chance we were going back to work. There were some other opportunities. I knew there were some decisions that I had to make pretty soon."
But he shot a closing-round 67, which included a tricky 5-footer on the 18th hole to tie Sluman. And then his winning par putt on the first playoff hole went in. His quest to earn a Champions Tour card ended on the same course it started on in 2005.
"I've been trying to find the right words about that ever since," Spittle said. "I was very calm during the whole process. I was playing with Jeff, so I knew what was going on. Once we got in the playoff, I knew what we were playing for. People asked me if I was excited about the money ($262,500). The money really wasn't that important. I told people, 'Just give me the win and I'll give the check back,' although I didn't really give the money back.
"When Jeff missed his putt, I knew that my putt was to win. And it went in. I'm trying not to cry. I was asked what it means. It means everything. This changes our lives."
Spittle is in the winners-only field at this week's Mitsubishi Electric Championship in Hawaii, the tour's first event of 2011. He will be reunited with Cook.
"We'll hook up for sure, and I'll show him the ropes,'' Cook said.
Being between the ropes is the only place Spittle ever wanted to be.
"I'm still giggling that I get the chance to do that,'' he said. "(The Champions Tour) is all about the name players being able to play for another five or 10 years. And that's fine. But in the fine print, there is a little bit of an avenue for guys who are foolish enough to think they can play. There have been some great amateur players who have made it that way, and now an insurance guy."