The Champions Tour is not exactly welcoming to players like Augusta’s Scott Parel, who made it to the age of 50 without ever earning membership on the PGA Tour.
Parel, who is exempt on the Champions Tour this year for the first time after sharing medalist honors in the finals of Q-school late in 2016, has no problem with that.
After turning pro at the age of 31 following 10 years as a computer programmer, Parel grinded away on mini-tours throughout the Southeast before landing a spot on what is now the Web.com Tour in 2003.
Parel played on the tour with modest success for a decade before finally breaking through in 2012, challenging for the first time a finish high enough on the money list to qualify for the next year’s PGA Tour.
But after coming close in both 2012 and ’13, by which time he was approaching his 50th birthday, Parel did not play as well the next two years, and narrowly lost his exempt Web.com Tour status as he became eligible for the Champions Tour.
With just $700,000 in career earnings on the Web.com Tour, Parel entered the Champions Tour with no status, having to depend on his success in Monday or Tuesday qualifiers to gain access into tournaments.
Thanks to an impressive run of success in pre-tournament qualifiers last year (he made it eight times and missed on only a handful of occasions), Parel finished high enough on the money list to qualify for the first two Schwab Cup Playoffs events . He placed in the top 10 in both, but did not make it into the field for the Schwab Cup Championship.
That sent Parel back to a familiar late-season event – Q-school – where he repeated his success throughout 2016, sharing medalist honors to earn exempt status for 2017.
Parel is exempt for every Champions Tour non-major this season other than the season-opening Tournament of Champions in Hawaii and the Legends of Golf team event played the week after the Champions Tour made its annual stop at TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth. He also expects to earn a spot in the field of at least three or four of the tour’s five majors.
“I get it,” Parel said when asked about the limited number of spots available on the Champions Tour for players like him. “It’s a closed shop and it should be. Fans don’t want to come out to a tournament and watch 20 players they never heard of.”
The number of spots available in the weekly qualifiers and Q-school is four (most weeks) and five (Q-school), forcing players like Parel, as well as former PGA Tour players who did not amass a small fortune in career earnings, to play extremely well to earn their shot.
After his success last year on Mondays and Tuesdays, Parel was prepared for the finals of Q-school and went to the front immediately with a 65 in the first round on the Magnolia course at Walt Disney World Resort outside Orlando, which hosted an annual PGA Tour event for four decades. He closed with back-to-back scores of 69 for a 13-under 275 total to tie for first with former European Ryder Cupper Phillip Price and earn one of five exempt spots for this year.
After a somewhat disappointing middle of the pack finish at Sugarloaf, Parel was 36th on the money list with $91,129, and will need to maintain that exact spot to remain exempt for next year. The top 36 players after the first two Schwab Cup Playoffs events qualify for the Championship and are fully exempt for next year, and Parel believes he has a good shot at accomplishing that.
“I’m pretty confident,” he said after the second round of last week’s Mitsubishi Electric Classic at Sugarloaf. “I’ve just got to make more birdies than this.”
Parel shot 71 that day, moving into contention after playing the first 10 holes in 3-under to get to 5-under for the tournament, just a few shots off the lead. But he went 2-over the rest of the way, including a costly bogey at the short par-4 13th, the easiest hole at Sugarloaf.
After a stretch of bogeys midway through the final round, he needed three birdies over his final eight holes to shoot 73 and finish at 2-under 214, tying for 39th in the 78-player field. It was the poorest finish of 2017 in five starts for Parel, who shot between 6 and 9-under in his previous four tournaments and never finished below 32nd. His best showings were a tie for 10th in south Florida and a tie for 16th in the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic.
“I’m usually between 70 and 71 in scoring average, but this year I’m under 70, so I’m trending in the right direction,” he said, before his final round 73 raised that number to exactly 70.
“It’s all about making putts.”
Standing just 5-foot-5, Parel is one of the longer hitters on the Champions Tour, but occasionally struggles with accuracy, and spent much of the tournament at Sugarloaf hitting 3-wood off the tee. Parel ranks near the top in putting stats, but that number may be a bit misleading as it is as much a reflection on the quality of his approach shots.
Unlike most golf pros who peak in their 20s and 30s, Parel played his best golf in his late 40s, having his most successful Web.com season at the age of 47 and scoring his lone win at 48. Now that he is able to play a full schedule and has at least some experience on about half the courses the Champions Tour visits, Parel has realistic hopes of improving on his current standing on the money list.
Being exempt this year is “huge,” Parel says. “I can set my schedule and can prepare for just one course each week instead of two. It’s a much easier row to hoe.”
After turning 50 in the summer of 2015, Parel made just one Champions Tour start that year, as he was focused on finishing in the top 75 on the Web.com money list to earn a final shot at securing his PGA Tour card for 2016.
Parel finished 76th that year in earnings, narrowly missing a top 75 finish and ending his hopes of making it to golf’s major leagues. While he is admittedly disappointed in never getting a shot at the PGA Tour, he says he is “over that,” with the Champions Tour serving as an acceptable substitute.
“This is a huge bonus to be able to do this in my 50s,” he said. “I’m making more money than I have in my whole life (a career-best $336,392 last year). I’m just thankful for the sponsors and the players who bring the fans in. I know they’re not coming to see me.”
Parel competed in five PGA Tour events between 2002 and 2008, qualifying for the U.S. Open in ’02 and ’05 and Monday qualifying for a lone PGA Tour event each of the next three years. He made his only cut in the ’06 BellSouth Classic at Sugarloaf.
After turning 50, Parel put his years of playing in Monday qualifiers to good use, making it into the main field almost every time he competed in a qualifier last year. He made enough money in those events to get into the majors that reward players for how they are currently performing, not on what they accomplished two decades in the past.
Parel tied for seventh in the Senior PGA Championship in his first start in a senior major, which helped him finish in the top 72 on the money list and qualify for the Schwab Cup Playoffs. He placed 10th and sixth in his two Schwab Cup Playoffs starts, finishing the year 50th in earnings.
“It’s about what I expected,” he said of his play on the Champions Tour. “I wouldn’t say I’ve exceeded my expectations. I can do better. I hit the ball good enough. If I can hole putts, I can contend.”
The only time Parel won on the Web.com Tour, he shot 64 in the final round in Wichita in 2013 to win by three, and he owned one of the lowest final round scoring averages on the Champions Tour last year in addition to his scoring prowess on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Parel graduated from the U. of Georgia but never attempted to walk on to the school’s golf team. He did make an attempt to earn a spot on the baseball team after playing the sport in high school, but was unsuccessful in his efforts.
After 10 years in the computer programming field, Parel decided to take a shot at the life of a tour pro, and spent almost a decade playing on mini-tours before finding a more permanent home on the Nationwide/Web.com Tour.
Parel never got to compete on a regular basis against the game’s best players until he turned 50, but is more than holding his own against them on the Champions Tour, and sees no reason why he can’t continue in that direction for the foreseeable future.