In the three decades since he won a NCAA Division II title, Tommy Brannen has found out that little has changed in the competitive world of golf just because he's joined a higher age bracket.
"This is my group of guys I played college golf with and they were good then," Brannen said of his forays into the senior circuit. "It's amazing how deep it is."
Brannen, the head pro at Augusta Country Club for the past 10 years, shared the medalist honors last week at The Standard Club in Atlanta in qualifying for the U.S. Senior Open. He competes in the senior major July 29-Aug. 1 at Sahalee Country Club in Sammamish, Wash.
"They are just so much fun to play in," said Brannen of golf at the major-championship level.
Brannen is no stranger to the game's big stages -- and not just because he works across the creek from the home of the Masters Tournament. He competed in the 1987 and '88 PGA Championships, finishing tied for 38th at Oak Tree in 1988 with the likes of defending champion Larry Nelson and three-time U.S. Open winner Hale Irwin.
Twice already since coming of age he has qualified for senior majors. He missed the cut at the 2008 U.S. Senior Open at Whistling Straits and last year at the Senior PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
He hopes Sahalee won't present the same demanding challenges off the tee as his previous experiences.
"I'm hoping this course is a little more straight forward," Brannen said. "I need to get the irons in play. Or maybe I just need to learn to drive it better."
Brannen long ago chose to make his career as a club pro instead of a touring pro. After winning a team and individual NCAA title at Columbus State in 1978, Brannen sought a tour card and reached the final stage of Qualifying School eight times.
The closest he came was in 1988, but he shot 3-over on the last nine holes and missed joining the PGA Tour by two shots. He decided then that he'd take his golf career in a different direction.
"To have a family and do that traveling, I didn't think that was my lifestyle," he said.
There's no arguing his choice after a long career at two of Georgia's most prestigious clubs -- Atlanta Athletic Club and Augusta Country Club.
"I'm one of the luckiest golf pros," he says of a membership that treats him like family and encourages his forays into the majors.
Brannen has no plans to quit his day job. He's seen how intense the competition is even at the Champions Tour level where guys are shooting 68s and 69s in Monday qualifying events and missing out on spots in fields.
But he likes the occasional tastes of something beyond his Georgia PGA events.
"I'd like to get in that mix and be part of it now and then," he said.
But it's teaching that pays the bills. Brannen long ago invented a simple aid to help golfers get their arms in the proper position on the backswing by preventing them from over-folding their arms. His Swing Extender -- which attaches to the dominant arm and prevents you from breaking your elbow past 90 degrees at the top of the backswing and thus keeps the lead arm straight -- has been providing him with a little pocket change despite never promoting it anywhere except his Web site.
In April 2009, the Brannens got a call on the business line just days before the Masters from a pro wanting to get two Swing Extenders.
His wife, Melanie, answered and took the order as they headed out the door for dinner.
"Who was it?" Brannen asked.
"Some guy playing in the tournament," she said. " His name is Trevor Immelman."
"Melanie, that's the defending champion," Brannen said with a laugh.
If Brannen plays well enough at Sahalee at the end of the month, he might be fielding more calls. For the first time, he decided to do a little marketing. He'll wear a hat with Swing Extender on it and Titleist made him a golf bag with the logo as well.
"I've never marketed it, so this time I decided to do it and see what happens," he said.
That's kind of his mindset for the whole Senior Open experience. Instead of setting a goal, Brannen wants to go there armed only with a set strategy.
"I want to focus on playing the golf course the way it's supposed to be played," he said.
"If I map out a good gameplan, the reward will be to play well and maybe get opportunity to play it again."
After all these years, some things never get old.