- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2012

HONOLULU (AP) - Gary Christian is among 11 players at the Sony Open who are playing on the PGA Tour for the first time.

It’s a route to the big leagues unlike the others.

He worked as a pension administrator outside London when he finished high schools, two miserable years spared only by the fact his office was down the street from a pub, where he could extend his lunch hour.

He somehow landed at Auburn, where he couldn’t understand the fascination of “alleged amateur American football” until he was invited to his first tailgate party.

When he decided to see if he was good enough to play golf for a living, he supported himself by going door-to-door selling steak knives. And after toiling 15 years in the minor leagues, the 40-year-old finally gets his shot.

It all began to sink in Tuesday when he went out to the range and found himself next to Vijay Singh, a three-time major champion.

“He’s a big bugger, isn’t he?” Christian said.

Christian is not lacking a sense of humor, or any measure of perspective. He attributes that to his heritage.

“English people tend to be more realistic,” he said. “They don’t have as many people telling them how great they are. Usually, they have people telling them how bad they are. At the end of every year, I looked myself in the mirror and said, `Am I getting better?’ And every year, without hesitation, I said, `Yes.’

“I would have never kept playing the game if I knew I couldn’t progress beyond a certain level,” he said. “If my goal was to make the Nationwide Tour and make the cut a few times, I would have quit 10 years ago. My goal was specific _ to get to the Nationwide Tour, play well, win, develop tools necessary to get on the PGA Tour, and stay on the tour.”

Now that he’s finally here, there’s only one step left.

The Sony Open begins Thursday as the first full-field of the 2012 season. Mark Wilson is the defending champion. Steve Stricker is coming off a three-shot win last week at Kapalua.

The buzz along the shores of Waikiki comes from so much optimism, mostly from players who are just starting out after getting their cards through Q-school or the Nationwide Tour.

Harris English has one thing in common with Christian _ this is his first PGA Tour event.

Christian was pouring drinks in a pub at the same age English was winning a Nationwide Tour event as an amateur. English went on to fulfill his dream of playing in the Walker Cup last year, then barely broke a sweat in both stages of Q-school to earn his card.

Even though his win gave him Nationwide Tour status for 2012, English didn’t even bother with the PGA Tour until he had his card.

“I didn’t feel like I deserved it, or that I had earned it,” he said. “I wanted to get my gears ready, I made it through second stage of Q-school, played well in the final stage, and here I am.”

Christian vaguely remembers a moment like that.

He went from selling knives to working at Inverness Country Club in Birmingham, Ala., where the head pro saw enough promise in his game to give him a job.

His scores while playing with members were 71s and the occasional 67, then 67s and the occasional 65. When his visa was about to expire, he was made the membership director, and the slight improvement continued.

Christian’s first big year was on the old TearDrop Tour in 1998, when he won four times. He made it onto the Nike Tour the next year, and was on his way.

“I thought this was going to be a dawdle,” he said. “I’d play a year on the Nike Tour, and then be on the PGA Tour. It didn’t quite work out that way.”

He never cracked the top 10 that year, and it took seven more years just to get through the second stage of Q-school and return to what by then had become the Nationwide Tour. It took him six more years of work just to get the big leagues.

Indeed, Christian might be the epitome of a late bloomer.

About the time he really got interested in golf, he was working as a pensions administrator, which he described as a “job only slightly more boring than it actually sounds.”

Unable to hone his game without supporting himself, he stumbled into a scholarship program that sent him to Wallace State Community College, where he was teammates with Brett Wetterich, and then on to Auburn.

The highlight was tailgating.

“I didn’t know what that meant,” he said. “My friend said they park and have a good time. You drink and eat. I was on a small budget, didn’t have a lot of money for food or beer, so I thought, `Yeah, why not?’ I had a girlfriend back then and I told her, `I’ll see you in about an hour-and-an-half. I’m going to tailgate.’

“It wasn’t anything I was expecting,” he said. “There were a bunch of 50-year-old men in orange trousers, women with orange earnings and whatever else. I thought, `Well, I’m not going to enjoy this.’ About five hours later … I got what it was about.”

It was while tailgating that he met a couple from Birmingham who offered him a place to stay while he chased his dream.

For work, Christian answered a classified ad offering $11.88 an hour to sell knives, but he wasn’t very good at that.

“I found it hard to see someone parting with $800 for steak knives,” he said.

Eventually, he moved on to Inverness and slowly worked his way to where he wanted to be all along.

The turning point came last summer, when he took his wife and two sons home to England.

Playing golf at his old club with friends, who had seen his action over the years, they told him he was ready. And as he says, the English don’t just toss around praise. Within a few months, he won a Nationwide Tour event that helped him lock up his card.

On Thursday, he will be introduced on the 10th tee at Waialae as a full-fledged PGA Tour member.

“The nerves haven’t hit me yet,” he said. “I’ll have to work 100 percent on relaxing and breathing, my tempo and rhythm, and trust the hard work I’ve done.”

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