As the fall class opened, Luke Guthrie sat front and center. Just like always.
But he didn’t need to be there.
While his Illinois classmates spent the summer delivering pizzas and working at the mall, Guthrie found a more lucrative part-time job: playing golf. In a combined 15 PGA and Web.com events, he earned $695,265. And his PGA card.
You go to college to set yourself up for a career. Mission accomplished.
Tiger Woods left Stanford early. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James never even started college. How’s that working out?
Guthrie had 13 hours to finish this fall to earn his business management degree. Quitting wasn’t an option.
“I worked hard for four years on being a student-athlete,” Guthrie said. “If I didn’t finish this up that would all be for nothing.
“I’m at a great institution here. I think it’s a big part of life, really, to say you graduated, stuck to something. I’ve never been one to give up.”
Guthrie’s decision to return didn’t surprise his coach.
“It wasn’t even a question,” Mike Small said. “He’s such a good student.”
From a practical standpoint, the decision made sense.
“In golf, there’s no guaranteed money waiting for him,” Small said. “We didn’t know how he’d play this summer.”
Turns out, he played well. Very well. The team finished the NCAA meet in California and Guthrie immediately went to play in the St. Jude Classic. Where he tied for 19th and earned $67,892.
“My goal was to treat it like any other tournament and try to be as relaxed as I can and focus on the lead,” Guthrie said. “Try to win them. That’s how I’ve always played tournaments. Don’t go out just trying to make the cut.”
He did even better a month later at the John Deere Classic, tying for fifth and cashing a check for $174,800.
Still, he was coming back to Illinois. In Small’s time as golf coach, every one of his players has earned his degree. Guthrie wasn’t going to be the exception.
“He’s a great kid, a great Illini,” Small said. “He didn’t want to be the first Illini golfer in 12 years not to graduate. He didn’t want that on his mantel.
“He’s got a lot of pride.”
The attitude will serve him well as he moves forward, Small said. The PGA Tour isn’t easy. Endless travel, pressure, playing through different struggles with your game.
Small has experienced it as a player. And watched former teammates hit the wall, too. Now one of the top golfers in the world, former Illini Steve Stricker had a stretch where he couldn’t hit the ball straight. It happens to the best of them.
Guthrie’s got a head start on Stricker. And on Small.
“It took Steve Stricker five years to get his PGA Tour card,” Small said. “It took me seven years to get my PGA Tour card. It took Luke four months.”
Guthrie knows he’s in an unusual spot.
“It’s very cool,” Guthrie said. “That’s a list of some pretty good golfers. I’m hoping to play practice rounds with Stricker and D.A. (Points) and hopefully learning a lot. I’ll try to be a sponge and take as much information as I can from those guys.”
Small won’t predict wins for Guthrie. Not in a sport where you can shoot 61 and still lose. There is no defense. The potential for wins is there.
“He’s not chasing a pipe dream,” Small said. “It’s a perfect fit for his mentality. He’s not looking for the comfort zone.
“He’s not scared. He plays with no fear. He’s so mentally strong. That’s his biggest asset.”
Guthrie wasn’t able to make every class in the fall. Not with a schedule full of tournaments. To reach No. 2 on the Web.com money list, and earn his PGA card, Guthrie kept busy.
“He was juggling a lot,” Small said. “He worked with his teachers. I think the teachers saw what he was doing, and I think they appreciated it.”
They sure did.
Eric Neuman, an assistant professor of business administration, had Guthrie for a class in fall 2011: Organization, design and environment. Guthrie would show up early for each class, and the two would begin to talk.
“He was completely unassuming,” Neuman said. “If you didn’t know he was on the golf team he would look like anybody else in class.”
Guthrie wasn’t coming into class and bragging about his latest tournament success. No “Ask me about the Big Ten title” T-shirts, either.
“They knew I was playing professional tournaments, that’s about all,” Guthrie said.
There was some awareness of his career path. Wanting to get to know his students better, Neuman had them fill out a fact sheet early in the semester. Under “dream job,” Guthrie put “pro golfer.” Neuman realized Guthrie’s dedication level.
Neuman followed Guthrie’s golf results during the summer on the PGA and Web.com tours. He wrote him a note of congratulations, only to find out Guthrie was back on campus.
“Most kids his age would not,” Neuman said. “But knowing Luke, it didn’t surprise me. He was a great student. He was always prepared. He had always done the readings. He always had good comments.”
Finishing his schoolwork means something to Guthrie. And sets an example for others.
“From an instructor’s standpoint, it’s wonderful to see,” Neuman said. “Knowing Luke, it’s great. He deserves it. He’s worked really, really hard both in school and on the course.
“He’s a guy who deserves everything he gets.”
Guthrie is putting lessons he learned in business school to practical use. Like the one about not spending every dime you make. Or any of it.
Despite the big summer paydays, he didn’t buy a Porsche. Or the biggest TV available.
He’s still driving his mom’s Sonata, which he will return to her before his next tournament.
So, any kind of spending spree planned?
“I might go get some nice sunglasses,” Guthrie said.
Small hears about the sunglasses and laughs. Typical Luke.
“He’s very smart with his money,” Small said. “He doesn’t need material objects to feel good about himself. He wants titles, and he wants degrees. He will never have a financial problem in his life.”
January 10. That’s when Guthrie will stand on the tee box at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu. And take his first official swing as a member of the PGA Tour.
“I’m going to be nervous,” Guthrie said. “I can’t wait for the challenge.”
The leap from the Web.com to PGA Tour is significant in terms of dollars and exposure. The ability of the players isn’t a major change.
“The Web.com is full of great players,” Guthrie said. “It’s stacked out there.”
In Hawaii, he’ll have a family member standing a few feet away. Brother Zach will be his caddie.
They were together at Illinois, Zach working as Small’s assistant.
“They just come from good stock,” Small said. “Zach was a nice sounding board for him. When Luke came as a freshman, he wasn’t playing. He came in playing horrible. He’ll admit it. Zach helped him. He didn’t baby him. They have a lot of respect for each other.”
Guthrie is looking forward to life on the road with his big brother.
“We’re going to have a blast,” Guthrie said. “It’s so huge to have him on the bag. He can find a way to refocus me. He knows what my swing looks like when it’s good and bad.”
There is a practical side to life on the Tour. Like eating right. And staying healthy.
“I can’t go to Buffalo Wild Wings every night,” Guthrie said. “You have to find a way to get some broccoli in you.”
Guthrie is among the top 125 golfers in the world. To move up the list, the goal is simple: play well in the big events.
“If I play well that stuff will take care of itself,” Guthrie said.
His confidence grows with each 15-foot birdie putt. Winning the Big Ten twice helps. So does his two titles on the Web.com Tour.
“It’s all about belief,” Guthrie said.
Stricker has become famous for crying after wins. You won’t likely see that from Guthrie when he holds up his first trophy.
“I’m smiling really big,” Guthrie said. “I won’t predict a huge Tiger Woods fist pump. I will be a very happy camper on the inside.”
After Hawaii, Guthrie will play in California, Florida and Texas.
But you haven’t seen the last of him in Champaign-Urbana. Not by a long shot.
“I think he loved it here,” Small said. “I think he still loves it here. He’s the kind of guy who might live here. He loves Illinois. He is so deep in all this stuff.”
On the Tour, his bag will be loaded with Illinois paraphernalia. The Block I will be everywhere.
Guthrie plans to talk to Small while on the Tour. A lot.
“He’s been so important to me,” Guthrie said.
His girlfriend, Kaitlyn Wampler, is a senior on the Illinois women’s golf team. They have dated for three years.
“I’m sure she’ll get out and watch when she can,” Guthrie said. “But she’s got her own job here, getting better every day and helping her team to a
Big Ten championship and finishing school. She’s got her priorities, too.”