Fort Mill Times

Fort Mill golfers make U.S. Senior Open

Chris Tucker, who qualified last Friday for the U.S. Senior Open Championship, tees off.
Chris Tucker, who qualified last Friday for the U.S. Senior Open Championship, tees off.

Like a fine wine, some people just get better with age.

That can easily be said for Fort Mill residents Rick Cloninger and Chris Tucker, both of who qualified last Friday for the U.S. Senior Open Championship later this month at Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The two golfers, Cloninger, 51, and Tucker, 50, both finished tied for first place in the sectional qualifier in Asheboro, N.C., at the Pinewood Country Club. Both golfers shot a 67, as the top three finishers qualified for the U.S. Senior Open. Since all either of them needed to do was finish in the top three, they didn't play a playoff to see who won the event.

Cloninger shot a front nine 34 and finished off the course shooting a 33, while Tucker struggled some on the front nine with a 36, but came back with a blistering 31 on the back nine.

The Pinewood course is a par 72 and plays 6,841 yards. Unlike many tournaments, the event was a one-shot, 18-hole tournament with the top three finishers out of 99 players making it to Broadmoor for the July 28 through Aug. 3 tournament.

The funny aspect of Tucker and Cloninger both qualifying is they had never met each other until Friday. Both had heard about each other in their respective golfing circles, but had never met.

"I have seen his name quite frequently," Tucker said.

Tucker is currently attempting to play on the Champions Tour, going through qualifying rounds each Monday before that weekends tournament. So far this year he has qualified for about three tournaments this year, including the Senior PGA Championship.

Tucker has played sporadically on the PGA Tour since 1990, but mostly at the Nationwide Tour level, one level below the PGA Tour. He said he had the chance in 1991 to play in the U.S. Open, but "choked on a four-footer" during qualifying and missed his opportunity.

Never-the-less, Tucker is a resilient competitor and said he feels good heading into the U.S. Senior Open. Both him and Cloninger are two of the 2,800 entries across the country that were skilled enough to get one of the 80 spots in the Senior Open tournament.

Like Tucker, Cloninger had missed out on playing in an Open championship. For him, it was last year when he first attempted to qualify for the Senior Open and missed it by one shot. He also missed out on qualifying for the 1995 U.S. Open by two shots in a sectional qualifying.

"This is a big goal for me," he said.

Cloninger is happy being an amateur and never strive to make it on the professional tour.

"I have always looked at myself as an amateur," he said. "I'm not going out there with an intent to play senior golf."

Instead, he has been happy to tear up the amateur ranks.

Cloninger has won three different mid-amateur state championships in three different states -- Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas.

In 1990, his first big win came winning the Orlando City Amateur. The next year, he won the Florida State Mid-Amateur. He followed his 1991 state mid-amateur title by winning the Florida State Match Play Championship in 1992 and then then Florida State Four Ball Championship in 1993.

He won the six state championship while living in Georgia. In 1999 and 2001, he won the Georgia State Match Play Championship as well as the Georgia Amateur Championship in 1999. He was also named the Georgia State Golf Association Player of the Year in 1999 and the Georgia Player of the Year in 2001.

In 2001, Cloninger also claimed the Georgia State Public Links Championship and the Georgia State Mid-Amateur Championship at Augusta Country Club, which he also won in 2002. In 2003, he won the Carolinas Mid-Amateur Championship. He qualified twice for the U.S. Amateur Championship in 1994 and 2003.

His goal for the Senior Open is two fold -- make the cut and be the low amateur. By doing so, he would re-qualify for the 2009 U.S. Senior Open and qualify for the U.S. Amateur in Pinehurst, N.C. and the U.S. Mid-Amateur in Wisconsin.