Tom Gillis has been a man on a long, winding journey. In his half-century of life, Gillis may not have established himself as a household name, but his adventurous golf career has struck a chord with golf course weekend warriors who live vicariously through men like him.
Perhaps best known for his runner-up finish at the 2015 John Deere Classic to Jordan Spieth, Gillis showed the line between a journeyman golfer and a star can be razor thin.
Growing up in a middle-class family in Lake Orion, Mich., Gillis started caddying at nearby Indianwood Country Club at the age of 13. The Aldridge family, who owned the course, allowed him to play and practice there for free. The generosity was critical as Gillis’ family would not have been able to afford the cost otherwise. His caddying and outside operation duties exposed him to the golf work culture.
“I just assumed I’d be working at a golf course or a club pro my whole life, which is fine with me,” Gillis said from his home in Michigan.
Becoming a professional touring golfer was not the plan originally. He saw the club pro and thought “man, this is a pretty cool life.” The club pro lifestyle of playing golf two or three days a week, competing in tournaments within the state, having winters off, a pretty wife and a nice car appealed to Gillis.
His golf ability led to a scholarship opportunity at Michigan’s Oakland Community College. After transferring to Coastal Carolina on scholarship, Gillis began changing his career goals.
“I thought ‘Well, I’ll give this a shot,’” Gillis said of his last year in college.
Playing on primarily mini-tours, the Hooters Tour and the Sunshine Tour after college, Gillis was fortunate to have Indianwood CC sponsoring him to help offset the expense of chasing the dream. His 12 starts from 1990 thru 1995 on what is now the Web.com Tour yielded few successes as he made the cut in only four tournaments, while he made three cuts in six PGA Tour starts from 1993-1999. In 1998 - eight years removed from college - Gillis attempted and failed to get through the second state of PGA Tour Q-school. His break came shortly after, when he flew to Europe and earned one of the last cards in the European Tour’s qualifying tournament. A businessman from the Detroit area, who had helped finance his career since 1995, agreed to help cover his expenses over in Europe. The arrangement paid off for both Gillis and the investor, who earned a nice profit thanks to Gillis’ play.
“After it goes on over time, it becomes more of a friendship,” Gillis said of the business partnership.
Gillis remained on the European Tour from 1998 to 2002, during which time he went through a divorce. He said his then-wife only wanted to travel with him sparingly.
“I like to equate it to pulling the wrong club. I just didn’t have the right person,” Gillis said.
Travel had taken a toll on Gillis’ stamina though, and fatigue limited him to just The Honda Classic and US Open in 2002. His 2003 PGA Tour campaign was a roller coaster of ups and downs, highlighted by a top 10 at the FBR Capital Open and over $432,000 in total earnings. After suffering a broken wrist in 2014, Gillis bounced back with over $421,000 during the 2005 PGA Tour season but landed at just 156 on the money list. Demoted to the Web.com Tour, Gillis managed to see the weekend just six times in 23 tournaments. Gillis didn't have full Web.com or PGA Tour status in 2007 and 2008.
“Those were lean times,” Gillis admitted, saying he thought about quitting playing professionally. He had about $200,000 saved at the time.
“I’m not leaving this game busted,” Gillis said of his thought process at the time. “So I was willing to just hang on to the 200 and find another line of work, but I couldn’t find anything I thought I’d want to do.”
His belief in himself waned as well.
“I had no confidence whatsoever. We didn’t have anything,” he said.
Gillis moved to Jupiter, Fla. and worked with coach Jeff Leishman. His confidence recovered quickly. Waiting to regain status while playing in primarily small purse events with large expenses proved to be the tough part. Gillis estimates that pros on the PGA Tour and Web.com Tour must spend around $5,000 per tournament on travel, food, caddies and other expenses.
Despite the loss the status, he managed to play in 13 Web.com Tour events (nine made cuts) and six PGA Tour events (three made cuts) during 2007 and 2008, including qualifying for and making the cut at the British Open at Royal Birkdale.
In June 2009, Gillis earned his lone Web.com Tour victory, a three-stroke triumph at the Tour Players Cup. He followed up the $108,000 payday with a T-31 before rattling off six straight top-10 finishes.
“Once we got rollin’ on that Web in the spring of 2009, everything just started coming together,” Gillis said.
Finishing fifth on the money list, Gillis earned his 2010 PGA Tour card and made 21 of 27 cuts that season and retained playing privileges for the following year. Successful campaigns in 2011 and 2012 making a combined 25 of 42 cuts made kept the momentum going into 2013. The fruitful stretch included Gillis briefly being ranked in the top 100 golfers in the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) and finishing 43rd and 40th in the FedEx Cup standings in 2010 and 2012, respectively.
But as is the case with a journeyman golfer, then came a setback. Gillis finished 156th on the 2013 money list and dropped back to the Web.com Tour for 2014. Making 15 of 17 cuts, however, Gillis regained his PGA Tour card. The yo-yo run continued in 2015, as Gillis made just half of his PGA Tour cuts with no top 25 finishes...except for one notable score.
After posting three rounds in the 60s, Gillis took it deep at the John Deere Classic on a memorable Sunday in July. A final-round 64 put him at 20-under overall and a spot in a playoff with world No. 2 Jordan Spieth. Spieth went on to win, leaving Gillis still without a win on the PGA Tour. However, his solo second-place finish at the John Deere Classic wound up being his career best. His second-place finish did, however, earn him a spot in the British Open at St. Andrews the following week.
“[TPC Deere Run] wasn’t a course built on length so I had a great week hitting the wedges and putting and I could compete,” Gillis remembered. It would be the last time Gillis would finish in the top 30 of a PGA Tour event.
After the 2016 season, the 48-year-old primarily remained in Michigan, where he returned in 2014 after living in Florida. He coached the high school boys golf team at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep and received a taste of retired life for about a year-and-a-half.
“Everybody wants to get to retirement,” Gillis said. “You get here and there’s not a [darn] thing to do. You’re bored off of your you know what.”
Turning 50 may not generally be a milestone for which most people get excited about, but for Gillis it meant being eligible for PGA Tour Champions. After playing three PGA Tour Lationoamerica events in 2017 and 2018 to stay competitively sharp, Gillis sizzled in his Champions Tour debut in August this year, finishing tied for third at the 3M Championship in Minneapolis.
“Now I’m the guy 30 yards ahead,” Gillis said of the difference between the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions. He told his playing partner, Kenny Perry, at the 3M Championship, “Now I know what Dustin (Johnson) feels like.”
In the less than two-and-a-half months competing on the 50-plus circuit this year, Gillis finished in the top 10 in five of the eight tournaments and earned over $533,000 in prize money. His 40th-place finish in the Charles Schwab Cup standings narrowly eliminated him from the season-ending championship tournament in Phoenix. Gillis looks forward to competing in several more events on PGA Tour Champions in 2019.
Gillis thinks he has about five to ten years left of professional golf. A wise money-saver, Gillis said if he could “have three good years on the Champions Tour, that would probably get me to the Holy Grail.”
He plans to still remain connected to golf in some capacity during retirement and is considering where to settle. He and his wife Jenny, who played golf at Oakland University, have been together 14 years now. They have a boy and a girl, ages 13 and 10, respectively. But their family would not be complete without their 5-year-old bulldog, Ruby. Gillis frequently posts pictures of Ruby on his Twitter feed.
Ruby is not the only bulldog on Gillis’ Twitter page. Gillis himself enjoys saying it how he sees it, even if it means ruffling a few feathers.
“I’ve always been wide open,” Gillis said. He claims he used to spar with the Tour brass over some of his Tweets. “I’ve had many battles with our Vice President, who’s a good friend of mine.”
At the end of every phone call though, Gillis said the Vice President would say to him, “‘You know Tom, I just want to tell ya, don’t ever change.’ He said you’re the darn most honest, straightforward guy out here on Tour. He goes, I know you’re not gonna lie or deny anything you’ve done and you always always got a reason why you do it.”
Five-time PGA Tour winner Ben Crane knows all too well about Gillis’ Twitter usage. In 2017, Crane allegedly reneged on a bet to fellow PGA Tour pro Daniel Berger. According to Gillis, Berger approached Crane on the Wednesday before the Waste Management Phoenix Open looking for a putting contest. The two agreed on $1,000 a hole. Both Charley Hoffman and his caddie witnessed the bet. Berger won, but Crane reportedly did not pay.
Berger, who Gillis has known since he was 14 or 15 when he was working at a Florida golf course at which Berger used to practice, called Gillis to ask what he should do. After asking what Berger was doing making bets like this when he had $1.2 million on the line on Sunday, Gillis told Berger, “That’s beside the point. Don’t do that anymore. Now let’s figure out how we’ll get him to pay you.”
Crane supposedly wanted to play Berger in ping-pong as part of the bet. Gillis thought it was a safe play for Berger.
“I can’t believe he can beat you,” Gillis told him. “Gee, you dad was a top-15 tennis player in the world and you were one of the top junior tennis players in Florida.”
According to Gillis, Crane defeated Berger something like 21-19 in the table tennis match to bring down Crane’s betting debt a grand to $5,000. Another month-and-a-half went by without payment. Berger called Gillis again. Gillis recalled telling Berger, “I think you should tell him that if he doesn’t pay, it’s going to get really bad for him, and he did two or three times and Ben still wouldn’t pay him.”
So Gillis tweeted about it publicly and tagged Crane directly.
“I said, not only are you playing so slow and you take everybody’s time up on the golf course, but now you’re bettin’ and you’re not paying your bets. Well, the next morning (Daniel) had five grand in his locker. It was over.”
The saga lasted from early February until its resolution at the Zurich Classic in late April.
The Tour was not happy about Gillis publicly bringing up the gambling squabble.
“VP was [peeved],” Gillis said.
Gillis says he is in contact with @ClubProGuy, who has built a massive following including many Tour pros, and called his humor “spot on.” He said, “Some of his stuff I can’t even retweet. You know, some of his Tawny stuff."
Gillis certainly is not perfect. But his travails and accomplishments have nonetheless served as an inspiration for wannabe pro golfers everywhere who see a little of themselves in Gillis and, who for one day, saw the 643rd-ranked golfer in the world take Jordan Spieth the distance. His PGA Tour career record may not reflect any wins, but Gillis’ longevity and perseverance are a model of a grinder.