Garrett Willis says he’s hanging up his spikes.
After 17 years as a professional golfer — 13 on the PGA and Web.com tours — the former East Tennessee State star has had enough of the travel, the worrying about getting into tournaments and the pressure of keeping his card. He’s retiring from the tours.
And he’s walking away with a smile.
“I had a good career,” the 39-year-old Willis said. “To be able to play on Tour for 13 straight years was a pretty good run. I’ve exceeded a lot of my own expectations.”
Willis, a first-team All-American at ETSU in 1996, burst onto the scene in 2001 when he won the Tucson Open. It was his first event as a member of the PGA Tour, and he joined Marty Fleckman (1967), Ben Crenshaw (1973) and Robert Gamez (1990) as the only players to accomplish that feat. Russell Henley joined that list this year by winning the Sony Open.
Along the way, Willis bounced between the PGA and Web.com tours, earning $4.7 million in official money.
“I feel like I put the effort in,” he said. “I really don’t have any regrets. To be honest, I’ve enjoyed it to the fullest. I enjoyed my time out there.”
Willis, a member of Fred Warren’s loaded 1996 ETSU team that reached No. 1 in the national rankings and finished third in the NCAA Championship, has plans to become a teaching pro, working out of Wind River Golf Course in Lenoir City.
As he goes through the PGA of America program to become a club/teaching pro, he says he’ll play local and statewide PGA Section tournaments.
“As far as the PGA or Web.com Tour, I’m retiring,” Willis said, adding that he might still play an event here or there. “I’m not doing it for a living any more.
“The avenues are getting less and less to be able to play out there. Access is very limited. It’s kind of forcing me out, and my time has come and gone as a player. I’m not getting any younger and the Tour is.”
His last event as a full-time touring pro came at the Web.com News Sentinel Open earlier this month at Fox Den Country Club in Knoxville. He shot 70 and 71 and missed the cut by two shots.
“I pretty much came full circle,” he said. “I started out playing in Knoxville and finished at a course I was a member at since I was a senior in high school.”
Willis, a Farragut High School graduate, said he had an epiphany during the Tennessee State Open in May, a tournament he won for the second time.
“It was the first time in a long time that I had fun playing golf,” he said. “I was in a golf cart, with a range finder. The pace of play was four hours. I wasn’t watching guys read putts forever from every angle, taking all day. I actually had fun playing in a golf tournament.”
The pace of play really caught Willis’ attention. He says he isn’t a particularly fast player, but wants no part of slow.
“I’ve just never been a guy that likes to play five-hour rounds and longer,” he said. “That’s typically what happens on either tour.”
Willis won seven tournaments as a pro. In addition to the Tucson victory and the two Tennessee State Opens, he won twice on the Web.com Tour, the Panama Open and a Hooters Tour Championship.
Willis and his wife Jennifer have a son, Gage, who will turn four in October. Spending more time with the family in Knoxville is part of the equation.
“That really was a big part of it,” he said. “It’s gonna be fun
to be able to be around him and watch him on a daily basis instead of being gone for two, three weeks at a time.
“Just the thought of packing a bag, going to the airport and waiting a couple hours, then getting a rental car and another hotel. ... It makes me cringe. That part is no fun.”
Willis says he won’t start teaching until May. He’ll spend the time between now and then putting in his work in the PGA of America program.
“Anybody that has 50 dollars, they’re more than welcome to take a lesson from me,” he said. “I won’t discriminate. That’s what I’m gonna charge. Golf has been good to me. Golf in Tennessee has been good to me. This is kind of my way to give back.”
One thing is certain, Willis said. He’ll never stop playing.
“I’m never retiring from golf,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to retiring from tournament golf.”