“I think the 48 is catching up with me,” the Web.com Tour veteran from Augusta said. “When you’re that much older it takes that much longer to recover.”
Parel has been chasing his professional golf dream for 16 years and has come tantalizingly close twice in the past 16 months to reaching his ultimate goal of a PGA Tour card. But his 2013 season so far has been a struggle because of his back.
After flying home from the third tournament of the season in Chile, Parel felt some stiffness in his lower back. The next day the pain had migrated to his right hamstring. A day later it felt like somebody was stabbing him with a knife in his calf muscle every time he took a step.
He limped to a tie for 62nd in Louisiana on March 24, but an MRI in Augusta a couple days later revealed a bulging L5-S1 disc pressing against his sciatic nerve. A couple of cortisone shots took care of the pain, but his swing suffered as he tried to play through it.
“I played probably more than I should have with it hurting and got into some bad habits,” Parel said. “I’m frustrated about the injury more than anything else and frustrated in not figuring out that I probably should have taken those weeks off and not tried to play. But that’s the nature of this tour. You don’t ever feel that you can take any time off because you’re getting lapped every week that you’re not trying to make money. It’s a Catch-22 – do you play when you know you’re not likely to make much money or do you try to figure it out and catch lightning in a bottle in one of those weeks?”
Coming off the best season of his career, Parel has made just two cuts in six starts this year – pocketing $4,328 that doesn’t cover the cost of travel expenses on a tour that spends most of the first two months swinging through Latin America. He’s failed to break par in six consecutive rounds since the final round in Louisiana, including 2-over-par 73 on Thursday in the first round of the Stadion Classic at UGA.
The low point was 79 last week in the second round of the South Georgia Classic in Valdosta.
“I was hitting shots that I’ve never hit in years,” he said. “My golf swing is just so far off line, especially off the tee, and my tee game has always been pretty solid. It was like an out-of-body experience.”
Fortunately, his younger brother, Rob, was watching and could actually see the problem.
“He said it looks like I’m swinging hurt – hanging back on my right side and not getting right shoulder through the ball like usual,” Parel said. “I looked at video and he was right. Did a lot of work last week and felt this week like I’m back to hitting the ball like I used to hit it.”
The results can’t turn around soon enough for Parel. Since giving up his job as a computer programmer in 1996 and embarking on his golf quest, Parel has never been closer to his ultimate goal. Despite being older than Jack Nicklaus was when he became the oldest golfer to win the Masters Tournament in 1986, Parel came within one stroke TWICE in seven-month span of getting the PGA Tour card he craves.
The first came at the final stage of Q School in December 2011, when he missed securing his card by one measly shot. He started the final round tied for 13th but slipped to 30th with 74.
Then in June at the Rex Hospital Open in Raleigh, N.C., he got into a playoff with James Hahn after his 15-foot birdie putt on the last hole lipped out. Another 15-footer to win on the first playoff hole missed and Hahn tapped in for birdie on the second extra hole to win after Parel’s 18-footer slipped past the cup.
The difference in the winning check and runner-up was $39,600. Parel finished 35th on the season-ending Web.com Tour money list – $34,700 shy of the top 25 that automatically earned PGA Tour cards for 2013.
“I don’t pine over that one that much,” Parel said of the closest he’s ever come to winning in 150 career starts on golf’s highest developmental tour. “I played well. I had a chance. I didn’t do anything that I can say, ‘If I hadn’t done that.’ I did pretty much everything I could do. He got up-and-down on the second playoff hole and I missed a putt. It is what it is.
“I would have loved to have made the putt on 18 to not have a playoff. I hit a good putt and it lipped out. That seems to be the story of my existence right now. I’m going to keep playing and keep trying and see what happens. I just hope I get well enough to get my strength back to where I was.”
Having come so close, Parel isn’t giving up. At an age where many golfers start eying the 50-year-old senior circuit, the Aquinas grad is still doggedly pursuing the PGA Tour ranks. He knows if he can climb into the top 75 on the Web.com Tour money list by the end of August, he may be a few good finishes away from that coveted card in the newly established 150-man, four-event qualifying series in September.
“It’s obviously not started like I wanted it to start,” Parel said of 2013. “I’m disappointed that I already feel like I’ve put myself behind the 8- ball. But there’s still more than half the season left, so there’s plenty of time.”