From The Executive Suite To The Champions Tour

What happens when two former CEOs try to make it on the senior circuit

From the 18th tee in the first round of the first professional golf tournament of his life, Bill Kirkendall hit a tee shot down the middle. As he walked to his ball, the man newly retired as president and chief executive officer of Orlimar Golf saw a leader board. He saw that the tournament leader was three under par. The surprising news was the leader's name: Bill Kirkendall.

Months after the astonishment, Kirkendall says, "Who'd have ever thought that?"

By day's end on Sept. 24, 2004, nine players had passed Kirkendall and six more had matched his two-under-par 70 in the SAS Championship at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary, N.C. Those 15 men were big names on the Champions Tour, among them PGA Tour major-championship winners Craig Stadler, Tom Kite, and Larry Nelson.

That was rarefied air for anyone, let alone a kid, and it mattered not that Kirkendall was 51 years old -- he was still a kid, just starting. Nor did it matter that he had been the CEO of two major corporations across two decades -- he was still a kid, dreaming.

So was Ed Blechschmidt, who at 50 heard advice from his young sons, Michael, then 14, and Jeff, 11. The father had encouraged the boys to play. They then asked him to play with them. When the father first thought of trying the Champions Tour, only to back away from the idea, Michael and Jeff said in unison, "No, Dad, you've got to do it."

Only, he already had a job. He was the CEO of Gentiva health services.

Besides, he hadn't played anything but client golf since he was a kid.

Thirty-five years, it had been.

"But it was time to walk the talk," Blechschmidt said.

His walk took him from the boardroom to the practice tee. He won the first club championship he ever entered. He was one of seven amateurs who reached the final stage of the 2003 Champions Tour qualifying school. One over par for 72 holes, Blechschmidt missed by one shot earning a conditional pass to the tour built for kids past their 50th birthdays.

This November, their CEO days behind them, Kirkendall and Blechschmidt plan to be among an expected 300 players at Q school. The top seven finishers get full membership. Another eight players earn conditional status, usually good for several of the tour's 30-some tournaments.

Now in its 26th year, the Champions Tour works because, first, those guys can play. Second, there's nostalgia galore. A third theory is based on those where's-my-life-gone questions that Every Man asks himself sooner or later, like . . .

"What if I'd actually studied in college?"

"What if she'd said, 'Yes, the Seychelles. Let's go -- now!'?"

And: "Those thousand meetings -- if I'd skipped them and hit a thousand balls each time instead, could I have played out there?"

The Champions Tour gives fantasizers a second chance to make their imaginings real. A slim chance, because it's still mostly true that corporate chieftains could never compete with players who were better than they were in the first place and have burnished their skills in competition at the highest levels.

But the operative word there is "mostly," for now comes real-world evidence in the forms of Bill Kirkendall and Ed Blechschmidt that it's never too late to skip a meeting and start hitting balls.

Blechschmidt had been a serious junior golfer. He won 20 events as a boy in San Diego (and once finished second in the city high school championship to a prodigy named Craig Stadler). A college basketball player at Arizona State, Blechschmidt played no competitive golf for almost 35 years.

Work owned him: 21 years at the Unisys information-technology corporation followed by tenures as president and CEO of the health-services corporations Olsten and Gentiva. "I played golf only in business situations," he says, "and only five to 10 times a year."

Golf was good for business. "In five hours on a golf course, you get to know a person professionally and personally." A chuckle here as Blechschmidt remembers a three-year stint in Japan where a day's golf is a day of golf, lunch between nines, communal showering after play, dinner, 12 hours if it's a minute. "Get naked with your client," Blechschmidt says, "and a certain bond develops."

But business wasn't good for golf. He avoided competition. He weighed 15 pounds more than he liked. His handicap stayed around 3 and 4, which is good for amateurs and bad for professionals.

Michael and Jeff Blechschmidt changed that. "Until he started with me and my brother, he almost never played," Michael says. "Then he got to be really good really quick. Now he believes he's playing better than ever in his life -- at least since he was 17."

"The boys got me going," the father says. They badgered him into entering that first club tournament, at Whitemarsh Valley Country Club near Philadelphia. Now he is a plus-1 handicapper in training for a marathon and at 6-feet-1 is down to 175 pounds.

Retired from the daily work, Blechschmidt serves on the board of directors of four public and three private companies, which kept him too busy last year to try the Champions Tour Q school. But for this summer of 2005, he has given golf priority.

"I'm going to work on my game," he says, "and see what I can do."

Truth or Dare

It's not often, after all, that a man arrives at the AARP-card age with a chance to reinvent himself. As Blechschmidt's sons encouraged the old man to go back to the future and find the young kid in himself, it was an old college golf teammate who moved Bill Kirkendall to reinvention.

Kirkendall had played at Illinois State University in the early 1970s. His closest buddy there was D.A. Weibring, who went on to win five times on the PGA Tour before joining the Champions in 2003. Twice a winner on the senior tour, Weibring last year invited Kirkendall out with the truth-or-dare line, "Hey, Bill, you're turning 50. Time to give it a shot."

"I'm not sure I belong out there," Kirkendall said.

"If you want to do it, and don't," Weibring said, "you'll regret it."

So, enough of this president and CEO stuff. Enough of the Etonic footwear and Orlimar golf club corporations. His two daughters were adults. And the mature, settled, responsible Bill Kirkendall did what the kid Bill Kirkendall couldn't do. "I turned pro," he says.

He played practically every week last summer. In a dozen low-dollar mini-tour events, he had enough top-10 finishes to earn tip money, $4,041. He made it into the U.S. Senior Open (missed the cut) and lost in a playoff for a spot in the Q school final stage. He called the senior grind "challenging," "difficult," "competitive."

Every minute, he loved it. He has a busy summer of 2005 planned: the mini-tour, both U.S. and British senior opens, and Monday qualifiers for Champions Tour events (two spots up for grabs by 40 to 70 entries paying $400 apiece).

All of it leads to Q school in November. Kirkendall is optimistic. "I wouldn't be continuing if I didn't think I could succeed."

To that end, like Blechschmidt, Kirkendall says he needs to shape up his body. "Golf and business have similarities. Make a game plan, focus, discipline, good support system. Where it isn't similar is your body."

The CEO can get by with an aching back. Not the 5-feet-10, 170-pound, old-kid professional golfer. "Playing a lot, I had trouble in my back and pelvis. I wasn't strong enough to take the daily beating." With a trainer, he has worked to strengthen his body core and increase flexibility.

And on the second day of that SAS Championship in North Carolina, the momentary first-round leader Bill Kirkendall, with career earnings of $4,041, was paired with Tom Kite, career earnings of more than $18 million.

"I was a little intimidated," Kirkendall says.

He played well enough early, though, two over par before running into trouble. "Drove it crooked," he says, "and didn't get it up and down."

An 81 that day and another on Sunday left Kirkendall in a tie for 73rd. The tournament winner was Ed Blechschmidt's San Diego high school rival, Craig Stadler. The winner's take: $270,000. Kirkendall's: $1,224.

Discouraged?

Kirkendall, discouraged?

Hah.

How often does a CEO see his name at the top of the leader board in a professional golf tournament?

It's not only priceless.

It's addictive.

Bill Kirkendall practically sang the old kid's theme song.

"It was really exciting," he says, "and I would love to have another shot."

By Dave Kindred

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