To achieve self-actualization on the links, first Matt Schalk had to fall short of his PGA Tour dream.
Then, he had to step away from playing nearly altogether and live vicariously through his role as coach and caddy for his daughter, Hailey Schalk, a three-time state champion at Holy Family and current CU golfer.
Once all that happened — once the mini-tours chewed him up and spit him out, once Hailey was off to college — the fairways opened up for him again. That roller-coaster journey in the sport set up Schalk, the 52-year-old director of golf at Colorado National, for a chance to play in a major on the Champions Tour.
Schalk won the Senior PGA Professional Championship last October, qualifying him for next month’s Senior PGA Championship. Hailey, now his lodestar, will be his caddy.
“I spent so much time caddying for Hailey and coaching for her, and from a player’s perspective, I learned so much from her,” Schalk said. “Watching her demeanor and how she handles herself on the golf course is really part of the reason I’m having the successes that I am. I changed how I used to be from watching her.
“I am a fiery player — I can get angry, get upset — and a lot of times that’s helpful because it drives me, but at the same sense there were times it was debilitating…. But I started reaching back to all those times watching Hailey and thinking of how proud I was of seeing how she reacted to difficult situations. I channeled that mentality within, and that’s what really got me through the final round at the (Senior PGA Professional Championship).”
At that tournament at Twin Warriors Golf Club in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico, featuring a field of 234 club pros from across the country, Schalk recorded the biggest win of his career. On the final day, he battled 30-mph wind gusts to card a three-over-par 75, winning the tournament by two strokes. It was the second notable victory of 2022 for Schalk after he claimed the Colorado Senior PGA Section Championship in August.
And all that success came after Schalk took about 11 years off from serious play. He would enter a couple of tournaments a year, but he’d often go months without playing a round or even hitting a ball. His time was tied up in his work at the country club, coaching and raising his three kids. Hailey was then emerging as one of the top junior golfers in Colorado.
“He’s dedicated his whole life to me and my golf because he kind of just stopped playing to focus on me, so it’s cool to see him have this success,” Hailey said. “The fact he wasn’t really practicing all that hard before that (Senior PGA Professional Championship) and went out and won, that’s pretty incredible. It sort of validated my thought all along that he should keep playing.”
Now with his daughter on the bag, Schalk believes Hailey will help elevate his game in his Champions Tour debut. Hailey’s caddied for him in a couple of tournaments before, but none as big as this.
“She analyzes but doesn’t over-analyze,” Schalk said. “It’s going to be a great mix-up for us to have her to turn the dial a little bit. Now instead of me giving her grief on the bag — ‘What’d you do that for?!’ or ‘I told you not to miss there!’ — there’s part of me that’s waiting to see what she does with that firepower next month. I’m sure she will take her openings.”
Stepping away for more than a decade to coach and caddy for Hailey was one of two sabbaticals Schalk’s taken from the game.
Growing up in Boulder, Schalk was first introduced to golf when his father beat the Boulder Country Club pro in gin rummy. As payment to Schalk’s father, the pro gave Schalk and his siblings free lessons at the course that summer, when Schalk was nine years old. He took to the game and started developing into a promising junior golfer.
But when a financial crisis hit Schalk’s family a few years later, the country club membership got canceled, and Schalk’s participation on the links also went to the wayside. He didn’t play from 12 until his early 20s, when he picked golf back up — and realized he was still pretty good.
He nearly won the Colorado Open in 2001 before collapsing on the back nine of the final day. The next year, he won the Wyoming Open, his biggest golfing feat until his win 20 years later in the Senior PGA Professional Championship. And there was plenty of fun and hijinks along the way, including the time he and three buddies missed their tee times at the Kansas Open. They were “prepared, practiced, ready to play” — until they went out drinking the night before, and forgot to set an alarm in the small hotel room they were all crammed into.
“When I won that Wyoming Open, I thought to myself, ‘Man I think I can do this,’” Schalk said. “But I played a lot of the mini-tours and tried to make it professionally for many years and just didn’t have great success. Once I had children, and I’ve got putts to make sure I can pay my mortgage and the car payment and the entry fee in next week’s tournament, it was the time to stop.
“In that same time frame, I went to a couple Colorado sectional qualifiers to get into the U.S. Open and kind of melted down late in the round, with nerves getting the best of me… I just wasn’t good enough (to make the PGA Tour).”
But Schalk now has another opportunity in front of him to qualify for a PGA Tour major. As he continues to prepare for the Senior PGA Championship — his favorite habit is playing nine holes at daybreak at Colorado National, speedy half-rounds that usually take about 30 minutes — he’s also readying for the PGA Professional Championship that starts April 30 at Twin Warriors.
After finishing fourth in the Colorado PGA Section Championship to qualify, if Schalk finishes in the top 20 at Twin Warriors, he’ll get an exemption into the PGA Championship, set for May 18-21 at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York. The Senior PGA Championship is scheduled for the following weekend, May 24-28 at PGA Frisco in Frisco, Texas.
Schalk called the possibility of playing majors in consecutive weeks “surreal,” but he’s taking the same grounded approach he did in his career-changing win last year.
“I’ll have the same calm mentality,” he said. “Just like I did in October, I’ve already booked my flight to come back after Day 2. That hasn’t changed because I’m okay now taking what happens, where before when I was on the mini-tours, I’m losing sleep all the time, I can’t put away the bad shots. Which is kind of where Hailey’s at right now, because she’s a younger player with fire and ambition.”
While her dad has been hitting career highs, Hailey’s game is in the dumps. As a sophomore for the Buffs last season, she excelled, leading the team in stroke average (74.71) and score in relation to par average (+2.71). But she’s backslid this year with an 81.78 stroke average, and didn’t qualify for this week’s Pac-12 Championships.
In face of the recent adversity, Schalk said his daughter “is practicing harder than I’ve ever seen her” as she looks to rediscover her mojo.
“I had a really good season last year, so I might have put too much pressure on myself with trying to live up to that standard,” Hailey said. “I need to trust my game and my swing again because I believe it’s still all there. And my dad, as my coach and my dad, is helping me keep believing.”
As for Schalk’s golfing future, his competitive window could be short once again. His 10-year-old son, Jaze, is already showing promise on the course. It’s only a matter of time before Schalk lets his clubs gather dust again so that he can carry Jaze’s bag around on the national junior circuit.
“Fundamentally, mentally, he’s as good as any kid as I’ve been around at that age, including Hailey,” Schalk said. “I’m not pushing him as much… but as soon as he gives me the wink like, ‘Dad, I’m ready to start taking it to a national level,’ I’ll have no problem putting this behind me and focusing on him again. This window could be short, and I’m perfectly content with that.”
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