Armed with homemade persimmon woods, throwback pro chasing comeback
Courtesy of Todd Demsey
Two weeks ago, before the final round of PGA Tour Champions Qualifying, in Scottsdale, Ariz., social media was abuzz over Todd Demsey, a journeyman pro who was one shot off the number he would need to earn his status on the senior circuit.
What made Demsey a story was not his scores — 67-67-68 — over the first three days. It was how he’d shot them.
With persimmon clubs.
“I like to feel connected to my equipment,” Demsey said by phone the other day from his Florida home. “Which is something I’ve kind of struggled with throughout my life in pro golf. Just having to learn to like whatever the engineers like.”
In an era of proposed rollbacks, Demsey, 51, is a throwback, an old soul in a middle-age body, aiming to compete at the highest level with equipment from the past. In that Scottsdale event, where every other club used by every other player in the 78-man field was fashioned from materials suited to a spaceship, Demsey had two wooden-headed sticks in his bag, a fairway wood and a putter, both of which he’d shaped in his garage. He would have liked to play his persimmon driver, too, but that club, which he also built himself, hadn’t been approved for competition through USGA conformance testing — an ironic twist that Demsey has resisted getting straightened out.
“I think the test would only cost me a few hundred bucks,” he said. (Two-hundred dollars, in fact.) “But it’s not really the money. It’s more like the principle — the idea of having to pay to prove that my persimmon driver doesn’t have an illegal trampoline effect.”
Said Judd Nieman, Demsey’s close friend and Q-School caddie, “Todd would have fit in well with Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and other guys from that era. I always think of him as having been born 30 or 40 years too late.”
AS IT HAPPENS, DEMSEY WAS born in 1972, in San Diego, where his father, a scratch player who had walked on to the golf team at Wake Forest, introduced him to the game at Loma Santa Fe, a low-key executive course in Solana Beach. In those days, woods pretty much all came in different flavors of persimmon. Demsey, at age 10, cut his teeth on Tony Pennas. He got good, fast. In what counts as foreshadowing, he also took up a golf-related hobby: refinishing clubs.
At Torrey Pines High School, a mini-factory of future Tour pros (Pat Perez and Michael Kim are among the alumni), Demsey lettered all four years in golf, before graduating on to Arizona State, where he became a four-time All-American. In 1992, the summer before his college sophomore season, Demsey won the California State Amateur, at Pebble Beach. The next year, he claimed the NCAA individual title (David Duval and Justin Leonard finished second and third, at one and 10 strokes back, respectively) and represented the United States in the Walker Cup.
This was at the dawn of a new age in equipment. By the mid-1990s, metal woods started turning persimmons into relics. Demsey tried to stick with his wooden arsenal, but it wasn’t long before the pressure of the arms race forced him to trade in.
Even then, he was a slow adopter.
“In college and later when I got on Tour, I never used the latest stuff,” he said. “It was always the models that were three or four years old.”
Not that he was jaded to the perks of his job. He knew that he was privileged, getting ready access to advanced equipment, and, on top of that, getting paid to play it. But the breakneck pace of change didn’t sit quite right.
“I get it. It’s capitalism. You’re always trying to expand the market,” Demsey said. “But the whole technology thing became a turnoff to me. It almost felt like cheating the game.”
The whole technology thing became a turn off to me. It almost felt like cheating.
Tour life brought another kind of unease. Starting with his rookie year, in 1997, Demsey made enough cuts to turn a profit. But while he loved the competition, he disliked the trappings. The travel was tough. So was the tunnel vision that the grind required. Demsey was more of a big-picture guy, a contemplative pro inclined to mull over the meaning of it all.
“On the one hand, I was happy to be able to pay my bills,” he said. “But traveling around trying to make money wasn’t why I fell in love with golf.”
Health problems further widened his perspective. First: back issues. And then, terrifyingly, a brain tumor, diagnosed in 2002. Though the large mass turned out to be benign, it required major surgery and follow-up procedures. In total, Demsey was sidelined for the good part of five seasons.
In 2008, he scrapped back to the Tour. By then he was married, with a young a child and another on the way. The grind resumed, now with his family, roaming the country in an RV. Physically, Demsey felt fine. Financially, he was staying afloat. But on the mental side, the old misgivings lingered, intensifying as the kids approached school age. “I realized I was starting to miss out on stuff,” Demsey said.
In 2013, he called it quits.
LEAVING TOURNAMENT GOLF BEHIND did not mean abandoning the game. In Neptune Beach, Fla., where he settled with his family, Demsey started teaching juniors. He also reconnected with a childhood hobby. In 2016, he built himself his first persimmon driver. Then another. And another. Every now and then, he did the same for friends.
Time wore on. In gaps between teaching, Demsey drove a van for his wife, Melinda, in her work for a mobile medical unit. He watched his children, Maggie and Tucker, grow up.
He got older, too. As he neared his 50th birthday, a feeling caught him by surprise: the urge to test himself again in competition.
During his tenure on the PGA and Korn Ferry tours, Demsey made more than 150 cuts, an achievement he describes as his greatest source of professional pride. The feat also gives him lifetime Tour membership, and exemptions into qualifiers. Last year, he took his first stab at the over-50 circuit, at PGA Tour Champions Q-school, with persimmons in his bag.
His choice of equipment prompts an obvious question: Is this guy nuts? Why opt to be John Henry in an era of steam shovels? One answer is that Demsey doesn’t feel persimmons put him at a disadvantage.
“They’re not as forgiving as those big hollow metal heads,” he said. “But as long as I hit it solid, I’m only losing maybe five yards. Ten yards, max.”
The other explanation can’t be measured on a Trackman, and it’s tied to what first drew him to the game.
“I think about being a kid, out there with my dad on that little executive course, and just the joy of trying to catch it pure,” Demsey said.
Given his Zen-quest affection for the game, it’s not a shock to learn that Demsey is a huge fan of “Golf in the Kingdom,” the famous book by Michael Murphy about a traveler’s encounters with a mystical swing guru named Shivas Irons. “Let the nothingness into your shots,” is a pearl of Shivas wisdom that Demsey is fond of quoting, which he does with a hint of surf-dude Jeff Spicoli in his voice.
Unlike legions of Tour pros, Demsey didn’t move to Florida to advance his golf career. He and his family were drawn mostly by the waves. Neither of his kids has taken up golf. But Maggie, 17, and Tucker, 15, are both competitive surfers. And Demsey himself is in the water most days, riding the swells after riding his bike a few blocks from his house to the ocean.
He is less regimented about his golf. As a Tour member, Demsey enjoys access to TPC Sawgrass and its tricked-out practice grounds, no more than a 30-minute drive away. But he rarely makes that trip. He hones his game instead by smacking shots in a neighborhood schoolyard when classes aren’t in session, and by playing cross-country golf on the beach.
“It’s actually a pretty good way to stay sharp,” Demsey said. “If I pull it 10 yards, I could break a window. So I’ve got to be pretty precise.”
It helps, too, that he’s off the grind. In addition to his two attempts at Q-school, Demsey has also tried to Monday-qualify into two Champions tour events (he fell shy in both), and he’s considering a run at the U.S. Senior Open. But he’s not under the gun or missing out on family time.
When he isn’t competing, or teaching, he works from home, building persimmon clubs in his garage, in an operation that he says is too informal to call a “company.” Last year, he said, he turned out 100 to 150 clubs, some at no charge for friends, the rest custom orders, for which he asks roughly $350 to $450, depending on the specs. One of those custom jobs was for the United States Golf Association, which earlier this year commissioned Demsey to build commemorative persimmons for the U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills, near Denver. (In a stunt that had Golf Twitter chirping, Bryson DeChambeau, who was in attendance as a fan, tried to drive the first green with one of Demsey’s clubs.)
Otherwise, Demsey keeps golf at a mid-distance. Though he follows the big headlines and forms opinions (spoiler alert: he’s in favor of the rollback and amazed at the size of some contracts and purses), he doesn’t watch golf on TV or track tournament results.
The last score he posted of his own was earlier this month in the final round of Q-school, where he got off to a slow start and wound up with a 74 that dropped him into a tie for 23rd; only the top 5 finishers earned their cards.
All good, Demsey said. He can try again next year, even as he makes a go at more Monday qualifiers. He’d love to make it back on the professional circuit. But whatever happens, happens. Either way, things feel different this time around.
“The kids are older, there isn’t that extra pressure,” Demsey said. “It would be a lot of fun — out there with Melinda, traveling the country in an RV.”
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