Mike Finster was not supposed to be playing golf Monday. The St. Petersburg resident was supposed to be in Atlanta trying to finalize a business deal as regional manager for Gaf-Elk, a roofing materials company. As far as his boss and co-workers knew, that's where he was. In truth, Finster played hooky to compete in the Bright House Networks Challenge Golf Series at TPC Tampa Bay in Lutz. At stake was a spot in the Champions Tour's Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am on April 16-18 at TPC Tampa Bay. He was one of 16 golfers who survived elimination rounds at Bayou Club in Largo and Black Diamond in Lecanto. Finster and friend Brian Mezrah were the second-place gross team at Bayou Club and barely made it into the final tournament.
Monday it was stroke play, and Finster scorched the field with 1-under 70 to beat runnerup Daniel Beckman by six shots. Golfers were given 50 percent of their handicap, and even Beckman's adjusted score of 74.5 wasn't enough. Finster is a scratch golfer and didn't get any shots.
He will tee it up with two Champions Tour pros and an amateur next month, a spot that normally costs a sponsor $12,000.
"How often do you get to play in a professional tournament in your life?'' Finster said. "This is kind of like a 'bucket list' (thing) for me: I want to one day play in the World Series of Poker, and I wanted to play in a professional (golf) tournament.''
When Mezrah asked him to team up to play in the elimination round at Bayou Club, Finster said "What the heck?''
They combined to shoot a gross score of 68, the number needed to be one of four teams to advance to the final round.
But Finster had a problem. He was supposed to catch an 11:30 a.m. flight to Atlanta on Monday. That problem was solved when he moved the flight to 7:45 p.m.
He also had two teleconferences with his company in the morning. His tee time was 1:05 p.m., and when the teleconferences started to run late, he got a little tight.
"I was nervous,'' Finster said. "I was a little rushed (Monday) morning because I had a conference call. I couldn't leave the house because I couldn't get a signal going over the (Howard Frankland) bridge. I had to hustle just to get here.''
And nobody at his company knew he was playing golf. As far as they knew, he was off to Atlanta to do business. And he would've gotten away with it if he hadn't slipped up and won the tournament.
"I'm really supposed to be working, but my boss is in Dallas, so I think I'm safe,'' Finster said. "I've got three voice mails from him.''
Mezrah, who had the lead after nine holes before falling out of contention on the back nine, isn't surprised Finster earned the pro-am spot. The two teamed up to win the 2009 member-guest tournament at Palma Ceia in Tampa.
"He's good,'' Mezrah said. "He's really good. I'm hoping to caddie for him at the tournament.''
Your next-door neighbor
Finster, 44, is a local. He grew up in Tampa and spent his free time playing golf at Rocky Point Golf Course in Tampa, mostly with friend and current PGA Tour member Woody Austin. He is a graduate of Tampa Jesuit High School and went to Northwestern to play golf.
After graduating, Finster took a shot at playing professionally. He spent a couple of years on the Japanese tour before realizing pro golf might not be his future.
He settled back in St. Petersburg, in the Tanglewood neighborhood, next to Mangrove Bay Golf Course. Aside from selling roofing supplies, Finster is also a husband and father. He and his wife, Mary Beth, have four kids: Heather, 12; Ashley, 10; Julia, 8, and Ryan, 5.
"I don't get an opportunity to play a whole lot,'' Finster said. "If my boss is listening, I only play once a month. Okay, maybe a little more than that. I'll stop by Mangrove in the morning and work on some shots. It's a good way to start the day.''
The whole family will descend on TPC Tampa Bay in about a month. Finster thinks it's pretty cool that his kids will get to see him play with pros.
"For a guy with four little ones, private school tuition, this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,'' Finster said.
"My wife would have my head if I had to pay for this. I'm struggling to find $300 to play in a member-guest (tournament).''
Between the ropes
Finster doesn't care whom he plays with in the Outback tournament. He plans to enjoy all the festivities, from the pretournament parties to the final day.
And he's going to tell everybody at work exactly where he'll be.
"I'm going to take vacation time for that,'' he said. "The phone will be off.''
Finster knows his place in the golf world. He is a really good amateur who tears up the municipal courses but isn't good enough to be a tour player.
But if he skips enough days of work between now and his 50th birthday, could he make a run at the Champions Tour?
"I think so. That's not a bad idea,'' Finster said, laughing.
"Actually, I don't think that is going to happen. I really have no aspirations anymore. I really just truly enjoy playing. I don't look back with any regrets. I fully appreciate how hard those guys work and how good they are.''