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Allen writes his own Canterbury Tale

 
By BILL HUFFMAN
      Playing golf for a living can be like reading a great novel, with lots of twists and turns and, eventually, a touch of irony.
       Michael Allen could have been a John Gresham character considering his roller-coaster career through the European, Nationwide, PGA, and Champions tours, as well as his numerous appearances at PGA Tour qualifying school. Since 1984, the year he turned professional, it’s been up and down, in and out, and round and round for the unsinkable Allen.
      Take the latest chapter, where he comes from out of the blue to win the Senior PGA Championship in his very first start on the 50-and-over circuit. Hey, it almost didn’t happen, which is par for the course when it comes to “Champagne Michael.’’
     The longtime Scottsdale resident, who grew up in San Francisco and played his college golf at Nevada-Reno, turned 50 in January but had no status to speak of on the Champions Tour. That happens when you make 334 starts on the regular tour and never taste victory even if you did earn over $5 million along the way.
     So imagine how surprised Allen was in March, when he received an invitation/exemption from the PGA of America to play in its first major senior championship of the year at Canterbury Country Club outside Cleveland.
    “My wife (Cynthia) told me I got a letter from the PGA, and I thought I probably had to pay some dues or something,’’ Allen said of his initial reaction. “I’ve never had an invitation or an exemption for anything.’’
     But Allen had a conflict, as he was hoping to play in the HP Byron Nelson Classic in Dallas that same week. However, since “the PGA had been so nice about it,’’ Allen decided to accept and attempt to outshoot the Over-the-Hill Gang.
     It looked like he might have made the wrong decision when he opened with a 4-over-par 74. But the following day he fired a tournament-best 66 to ignite his Canterbury Tale. Taking a one-shot lead into Sunday’s final round, Allen held off the more heralded Larry Mize to win by two strokes with his second straight 67 on the weekend.
     “About frickin’ time,’’ Allen mugged for the NBC cameras as he cruised up the final hole, punctuating his “W’’ with a birdie from 10 feet.
      The shocking conclusion moved Allen into some storied company, as he became only the second person to win the Senior PGA Championship in his Champions debut. That the other person was Arnold Palmer in 1980 was not lost on Allen, who celebrated his  biggest win to date by buying champagne for all of the media at Canterbury, perhaps one of the few such gestures in professional golf since “Champagne Tony’’ Lema initiated the practice at the 1964 British Open.
      “If you refer to me and Arnie in the same sentence, the only thing we had in common before was we liked to have a drink of wine or something,’’ said the easygoing Allen of his first win since the 1998 Greater Austin Open on the Nationwide Tour. “To be on that same trophy (with Palmer) is a phenomenal thing.’’
     And to think it almost didn’t happen, much like Allen’s career, in general, which has been a never-ending struggle since his initial victory 20 years ago on the European Tour, when he captured the 1989 Scottish Open.
      In fact, Allen actually left the game for three years (1996-98) to pursue other avenues.
      Those days away from the game included a job as an assistant pro at Winged Foot, unsuccessful stints as a stockbroker and medical sales rep, followed by yet another dead end as a contractor building homes at Troon North.
     “Even in that (boom) housing market (in Arizona) in the late ’90s, I was able to lose money,’’ Allen said of his personal conflict to fit into the everyday world.
      “So I got me a cell phone and figured everybody would start calling me (offering jobs) and needing me. But I was wrong.’’
     Allen can say that with a chuckle today, primarily because his life keeps getting better as he gets older. Sort of like the fine wine Allen has been collecting and sharing with friends for years.
      “After awhile you just kind of realize that it’s hard to go out in the real world and make a hundred thousand dollars a year,’’ he said. “There was a lot of frustration, a lot of good times, a lot of tough times . . . but I had my kids (daughters Christy, 16, Michelle, 12) and my wife and I was determined to take care of my family.’’
       So Allen returned to the working world he had left behind, and fortunately he was an excellent student when it came to Q-School. That he made it through successfully a record nine times in 13 tries also earned him the nickname “King of Q-School.’’
     “Luckily, I was good at it, because I was back there like every year,’’ Allen noted with a laugh. “So even though it’s been a struggle, it’s a struggle that I enjoy every day.’’
      Actually, it hasn’t been THAT enjoyable, Cynthia Allen countered.
      “This means a lot more to Michael than he’s been able to convey to you,’’ Cynthia told reporters covering the event at Canterbury. “He’d been staring at the wall for a long time.
     “But I never questioned his ability to play. I knew he’d eventually get the monkey off his back.’’
     Turned out it was a gorilla the size of King Kong that Allen was able to shake.  But despite getting a one-year exemption on the Champions Tour as well as a five-year exemption into all of its majors, Allen, who earned $360,000 for the big win, said he still plans to stick with the PGA Tour. And it has nothing to do with the fact that the money is roughly three to four times greater on the regular tour, Allen said.
     Asked if he’d sooner win a major on the Champions Tour or a regular event on the PGA Tour, Allen backed off nicely.
     “It’s one of those things I’m trying not to get into, because I don’t want to offend anyone,’’ said Allen, who has earned a mere $196,246 in 12 PGA Tour starts this season.
     “But if you said that (PGA Tour) event was the Phoenix Open, yes, I’d sooner win the Phoenix Open (than a major on the Champions Tour). The way I look at it, when you’re out on the main tour you’re playing against the best players in the world, and when you’re out on the older tour, you’re playing against the best players in the world 20 years ago.
     “So I still want to play against Tiger Woods and Henrik Stenson and Jim Furyk, and those types of guys for as long as I can. Money has nothing to do with it.’’
     Besides, Allen is hoping to become the first player in the history to pull off one of the most unlikely back-to-back wins of all-time.
     “This just gives me the exact scenario I wanted,’’ said Allen, who leaped all the way to No. 2 on the Charles Schwab Cup points list behind Bernard Langer.
      “I’m going to be the first guy ever to win this tournament, win a senior tournament, before he wins a PGA Tour event. . . . Well, it sounds good any way.’’  
   This week, Allen is chilling out in the 100-degree heat of Scottsdale and riding his equally hot Harley-Davidson, as well as hanging with the family and friends, who tossed a party for him Monday night.  He also took the time Tuesday to buy his long-time caddie, Mike Maroney of Denver, a Harley of his own.
   "I always told him that when I win, I’d buy him one, too, so I’m just keeping my promise,” Allen said. "I was hoping that when I did that the first prize would be like a million bucks . . . but I won, and I bought it for him.”
      Allen also was hoping that he would be invited to play this week in the Colonial Invitational in Fort Worth, Texas. But as we all know by now, the unsung journeyman seldom gets those types of invites even if his stock has gone up significantly in the past few days.
     So Allen sticks to his philosophy of making the most out of life as the PGA Tour tugs him from one way and the Champions from another. He seems totally comfortable with the great debate about where he’ll tee it up next, which certainly beats the alternative.
     “I just got my AARP card, so I guess you can’t fight it,’’ quipped Allen, who splits his golf in the Valley these days between his old hang, Mesa Country Club, and his new sponsor, Troon Country Club.
     “Yeah, I’m getting a little gray (on top), but I’m not going to go for the Grecian Formula (hair dye).  My wife got me to try it once, and I thought, ‘This is bad.’ ’’
     No, with the exception of the Senior British Open in England come late July at Sunningdale, Allen probably will be sticking to the PGA Tour for the next year or two even if it means he’ll eventually lose the Champions Tour exemption he just acquired.
     “Playing in the Senior British is more of a nostalgia deal, as I used to live right there (Englefield Green, England) when I played the European Tour back in the late ’80s,’’ Allen said. “I’d like to go back and see some of my old buddies at my favorite pub, the Armstrong Gun, and share a pint or two and catch up on old times.’’
    Obviously, camaraderie means a lot to Allen, who certainly has learned who his friends are through the turbulent years. That’s why you have to believe him when he says that turning 50 with a bang is not going to change his life dramatically.
    “Some people fight getting older, but I’m very comfortable with it,’’ Allen said. “I’m actually quite proud of the fact that I’ve made it this far.’’
     Considering all the twists and turns Champagne Michael’s career has taken over the past 25 years, we’ve got to toast to his tenacity.