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“There’s such a separation of where we are as competitors and where the pros are that play every week,” Alexander said. “That’s no knock on what we do. We do a lot for the game. Our skill level as a club pro is higher than ever. But the skill level of the tour pro has gone through the roof.”

Bob Ford knows that better than most, because he has lived through it.

He is going on his fourth decade as the head pro at venerable Oakmont Country Club, and he spends his winter as the head pro at Seminole Golf Club in south Florida. A year after he became head pro at Oakmont, he made the cut in the Bay Hill Classic. He twice finished among the top 40 in the U.S. Open, and twice made the cut at the PGA Championship. There was a time he didn’t feel out of his league.

Just like Nicklaus, though, Ford has noticed the widening gap.

“Back in the `60s, `70s and `80s, a lot of guys who were really good players decided to be club professionals, whether it was because there was not enough money or they didn’t want to leave their families,” Ford said. “There were a lot of opportunities to play as club pros. In today’s world, most of those same guys choose to play full time because there’s so much money.”

The more money, the greater the competition. PGA Tour fields are deeper than they have ever been. Arjun Atwal won in Greensboro two years ago after going through a Monday qualifier. The quality of athletes is greater than it has ever been. Most players _ Masters champion Bubba Watson is a true throwback _ have a trainer, nutritionist, mental coach, swing coach, or all of the above.

Todd Camplin is the 38-year-old head pro at Pinehurst No. 7. He won a Carolinas section qualifier and earned a spot in the Heritage last week, shooting 77-82.

“Fantastic,” he said. “Before I got into the business side of the industry, I tried to play for four or five years out of college and never got to play in a tour event. It was a fulfillment of dreams, really. It gives you a lot of respect for the game that those guys bring to the table every week.”

Camplin estimates he played a total of 62 rounds last year _ just more than once a week _ including 35 rounds of competition in Carolina section events. PGA champion Keegan Bradley already has played 40 tournament rounds, and it’s not even May.

For club pros like Camplin and Alexander, the ultimate is to get to the Professional National Championship, where the top 20 pros earn a spot in the PGA Championship. Four times in the last 15 years, none of the club pros made the cut at the PGA. The last club pro to crack the top 30 was Tom Wargo in 1992. He tied for 28th, and the next year won the Senior PGA Championship.

Nicklaus is right when he talks about the growing gap between the tour pro and the club pro. Or maybe he speaks from experience. Nicklaus competed against the resident club pro at Oakmont in the 1983 U.S. Open.

Ford beat him by four shots.