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Gary D'Amato: Ken Tanigawa's improbable journey is one of the good stories this week at the AmFam Championship

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Gary D'Amato: Ken Tanigawa's improbable journey is one of the good stories this week at the AmFam Championship

MADISON – A lot of amateur golfers who beat up on their buddies in the club championship and win the occasional state-level tournament think that once they turn 50, they’re going to light it up on the PGA Tour Champions.

Ken Tanigawa had no such illusions. He’d tried professional golf once before and flopped, even after playing collegiately at UCLA. Back in 2003, he made the cut in four of 22 starts, earned about $8,000 and arrived rather quickly at the conclusion that an awful lot of guys were better than he was.

He regained his amateur status, joined Whisper Rock Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, and won a couple State Amateur titles. Life was pretty good. On a whim, he entered the 2017 Champions tour qualifying tournament, not because he suddenly thought he could beat Bernhard Langer and Fred Couples but because the qualifier was in his home state.

Not only did Tanigawa get through qualifying, but as a rookie he won the 2018 Pure Insurance Championship, holing a 35-foot eagle putt on the 18th green at Pebble Beach to win by one stroke. Last month, he won the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship, a major, edging old UCLA teammate Scott McCarron by one stroke at Oak Hill.

Only three other players have won PGA Tour-sanctioned events at both Pebble and Oak Hill: Jack Nicklaus, Curtis Strange and Cary Middlecoff.

“Did I think I could win a major?” Tanigawa said Wednesday, on the eve of the American Family Insurance Championship. “Yeah, you always try to dream that it would be really cool, but to have it come to fruition and to actually execute and achieve that was a pinch-me moment, for sure.

“Three, four years ago, if you would have told me, ‘Hey, you’re going to be … talking to the media after winning a senior major, I would have said, ‘OK, right.’ It’s incredible to just even be here.”

Tanigawa, 51, goes into the fourth annual AmFam Championship ranked third on the Champions tour money list with $916,295, trailing only McCarron, the defending champion at University Ridge Golf Course, and Kirk Triplett, who won the inaugural tournament in 2016.

Tanigawa’s rise from the depths of obscurity – OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but not by much – to become one of the best over-50 golfers in the world is one of the really good stories on this tour, because it happens so rarely.

“I just really have to pinch myself just to be able to be out here and have the opportunity to play and compete at this stage of my life against these players that, like you guys, I watched on TV,” he said. “It’s really cool to be able to almost call them peers and to be able to play alongside them.”

Almost call them peers? Cinderella … excuse me, Tanigawa, ranks 12th on the Champions tour in scoring average (70.34), fourth in greens in regulation (72.06%) and has a dozen top-25 finishes. He’s not almost a peer; he’s one of the players to beat.

Several touring pros play out of Whisper Rock, so Tanigawa was able to see how his game stacked up and pick their brains. Going from an amateur in his late 40s to Champions tour major winner wasn't exactly the plan, but he at least had the confidence to give pro golf another shot.

“They said, ‘You’re plenty good enough to compete. Just keep doing what you’re doing,’” he said.

Triplett, who lives in Scottsdale, told Tanigawa not to become “that tour player” – by that, he meant that Tanigawa should stay true to who he was and not change just because he had his name on his golf bag again. It’s a message Tanigawa embraced.

“I kind of took that to heart,” he said. “Just try to stay in the routine of what got you here and stay true to those roots. … So that was great advice and I always kind of use that and remind myself of that.”

Tanigawa and his wife, Angela, just become empty-nesters – their youngest child graduated from high school – and they’re all-in on the Champions tour. It’s a do-over for that brief and forgettable pro career long ago and a chance to prove that he belongs, after all.

“So I guess that’s a big part of all this and the journey that I’m on,” he said. “It’s just incredible, really. It’s hard to put into words, but I guess that really could sum it up. It’s just an amazing journey.”

garyd@killarneygolfmedia.com

Gary has covered golf in Wisconsin since 1980 and is a multiple award winner in the GWAA writing contest. He was inducted into the WSGA Hall of Fame in 2017 and joined Wisconsin.Golf in 2018 after a distinguished career at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.