PALM HARBOR — Tom Lewis is a 21-year-old from England named after golfing great Tom Watson. Gary Christian is a 40-year-old from England named after golfing great Gary Player.
Lewis is the next big thing in international golf, winning the Portugal Masters on the European Tour last year as well as grabbing a share of the first-round lead at the British Open after an opening 65. Christian has spent time on more mini-tours than he can count, and for the past six years has been a Nationwide regular.
Lewis earned a spot in this week's Transitions Championship thanks to a sponsor's exemption. Christian got in as the first alternate when Erik Compton withdrew Tuesday.
Their much different paths to a PGA Tour event collide at Innisbrook. Lewis, a full-time member of the European Tour, is playing in his first PGA event. Christian, in his rookie season on tour, has played in seven events, his best finish a tie for 14th at the Humana Challenge.
Christian knows all about Lewis and his quick rise.
"Lucky bugger," Christian said. "When I was 21 I was in a dry county in Alabama playing junior college golf."
Lewis knows … well … he knows nothing about Christian.
"I don't know him," he says politely. "Maybe we'll meet up someday on the golf course."
Two different roads
Christian spent his early days playing soccer, rugby and golf.
"I didn't grow like everyone else did so I thought I'd give golf another go," he said.
By that time he was nearing college age and the accomplished junior golfers in England had passed him by. With no chance to play at the British Academies, Christian found his way to Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Ala.
That led to a scholarship to Auburn. But after a bad senior year his dream of turning professional faded. He became membership director at Inverness Country Club and tried to work on his game. Christian found some sponsors and headed out to mini-tours in 1998.
"I saw glimpses of good stuff against players who were playing every week and I was only playing twice a week," he said. "It was just an itch I wanted to scratch."
And he kept scratching.
There were mini-tours like the Dakotas Tour, the All Star Emerald Coast Tour, the DP Tour, the Teardrop Tour and Tight Lies Tour. But he failed to get past the second round of PGA Tour qualifying school. Finally, in 2005, he made it to the final round and earned a spot on the Nationwide Tour.
Last year, Christian finished in the top 10 on the Nationwide money list and earned status on the 2012 PGA Tour.
"I think my story is maybe not the norm," Christian said. "But I think I appreciate what I have a lot more than a majority of players.
"When you're a rookie at 40, perseverance is obviously a trait of mine. I stand out on courses like this and realize how lucky I am."
Lewis had a much more meteoric rise.
He was an established amateur at an early age, winning the 2009 Boys Amateur Championship at Royal St. George. He helped the European team win the 2011 Walker Cup. At the British Open, his 65 in the opening round tied Watson for the lead and he finished tied for 30th, the tournament's low amateur.
After turning pro and winning in his third professional start, Lewis was named the European Tour's rookie of the year. There would be no mini-tours for Lewis.
He accepted a sponsor's exemption this week because he has always liked playing here.
"I love Florida and playing in Florida," Lewis said. "There are great courses around here. I took this invite because the course sets up well for me, although I do have to get used to the grass here."
Lewis seemingly will be a force in professional golf for many years. Christian just wants to play between the ropes as long as he can. No matter what, Christian wants to see his fellow countryman do well.
"You keep your fingers crossed that his career path is going to continue on this trajectory," Christian said.
Rodney Page can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8810.