||Steve Haskins, working on his game Tuesday at Crooked Stick, has had his shares of ups and downs in the game. (John Mummert/USGA)
Carmel, Ind. – Steve Haskins is a survivor, and in professional golf, there's something to be said for that.
If the name rings a bell, if you make the connection, you're right. Haskins is the son of Hall-of-Fame college basketball coach Don Haskins, who coached Texas Western (now UTEP) to the NCAA championship in 1966. His landmark decision to start five African-American players in that championship game – a first in NCAA history -- later became the subject of the 2006 movie Glory Road.
But basketball wasn't Steve Haskins' calling. "I could have played through high school, been a starter and done pretty well," he said. "But once I started playing golf, I really took hold of that.
"My sophomore year I got out of basketball. My dad never really said much about it. I knew he didn't like that, but they wanted me to play basketball in the summer and I wasn't going to do that. I wanted to play golf."
The elder Haskins never pushed his son toward basketball. He was more concerned about finishing something he started.
Nevertheless, Don Haskins had a profound impact on Steve's golf career. Haskins chose to play collegiately just west of El Paso at New Mexico State, and after bouncing around after graduation, he pursued professional golf a few years later.
And this week, Haskins will be playing in his first U.S. Senior Open, which begins Thursday at Crooked Stick Golf Club.
While the pro game can offer rich rewards, it also is among the most exclusive of play-for-pay sports. Major League baseball has 30 teams of 25-man rosters, or 750 members. There probably are another 100 players on the fringe who spend time bouncing back and forth between Triple-A and the big leagues.
A PGA Tour event, at least those that are not invitation-only, has fields between 144 to 156 players. Perhaps there are another 50 players on that so-called fringe, who spend countless Mondays trying to qualify for events.
In baseball parlance, Steve Haskins easily has been among the best 750 players in the world over the past many years. But in golf terms, he has never been able to crack the majors.
Over a 17-year period, Haskins went to the finals of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament 14 times, and never achieved his card. In 1991, he finished in the top-10 on the money list on the Buy.com Tour (now Nationwide Tour). That same year, then-PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman proposed a change, giving full-exempt status on the PGA Tour from the top five on the Buy.com Tour to the top 10.
"I thought, 'Well, this is a done deal, I'm in,'" said Haskins. "But they voted down. One of the players who was going to lose his card because of it, voted it down and [the proposal] lost by one vote, so I was out. That's why I've always said what kept me off the tour was putting and politics."
Off the PGA Tour, yes, but Haskins never got off the train. He has the second most starts (370) and cuts made (192) in the history of the Nationwide Tour, which today offers the top 25 money leaders full-time PGA Tour status the following year. He has two Nationwide victories and has played in two U.S. Opens (1988 and 2002).
It hasn't always been easy. During parts of the 1990s, he was struggling to stay solvent and was barely making expenses. Several times, he considered abandoning the dream and giving up the game. That's where his father and family came in.
"My dad would never let me quit, my wife would never let me quit," said Haskins. "I had unbelievable support, or else I would have quit. But I was close enough always to say, 'You know what, I'm right there and ...'
"I mean, there were a number of years where I was making good money, with endorsements and everything. But in the mid-90s I really thought about doing something else. But I just had a dad who was so competitive and it rubbed off on me. And he would always say, 'Hey, let's go get 'em. Let's stay after it.'"
Haskins turned 50 last November. And for the first time in his life, he is making a living outside of golf, working for a company in El Paso that specializes in employee leasing. He has not played in a professional tournament since last September, when he was competing in the New Mexico Open the same weekend his father passed away. That's a long time between tournaments.
"I tried to tell people back in El Paso, 'Don't expect much,'" said Haskins with a laugh. "I've got a lot of experience from before, but right now I'm like a rookie. Things that used to be really easy or second nature for me are different; I have to think about them."
His motivation for the 2009 U.S. Senior Open will be different, as well. He won't be playing to pay the bills, as he has so many times in his life.
"I've always thought it would be nice to know how I would play if I knew I had a little bit of money, that I didn't have to make a 6-footer for the mortgage," he said. "So this will be fun."
At the same time, after all this time and all those near misses, Haskins still has an inkling. What he does at Crooked Stick over the next few days, and what the competition does, will give him an idea of what he might face should be pursue a Champions Tour card.
"It might encourage me a little bit or it might discourage me, one way or the other," said Haskins. "Really, I would like to see them add a Nationwide Tour veteran category because it's a tour that is 20 years old now. And somebody who has made 190 cuts out there ... they need to tell me that's not hard to do. They want to say it's the second hardest tour in the world, but they don't treat it with that same kind of respect. I just think they should recognize what some guys have done out there."
Steve Haskins never gave up, and there's something to be said about that.
Phillip Howley is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA championship Web sites, including ussenioropen.com.