RALEIGH — Few know better than Ty Tryon about the rewarding yet brutal world of a professional golfer.
Tryon, who is from Raleigh, turned professional at age 17 and in 2001 became the youngest player ever to earn a PGA Tour card. He signed major endorsement contracts and traveled the world with the expectations of the becoming next great American golfer.
He had the time of his young life and spent two years on the PGA Tour before losing his status. He became sick - mononucleosis sidelining him for six months in 2002 - and his free-swinging, power game unraveled.
He struggled to hit the golf ball straight and never improved his weaknesses. Soon Tryon found himself playing on tours in Europe and Asia, and then back home on the NGA Hooters Golf Tour. He quit playing golf for a season in 2009 before returning.
"It's been a humbling road," said Tryon, now 27, who returns to his hometown this week for the Rex Hospital Open at TPC Wakefield.
The Nationwide Tour event starts on Thursday and continues through Sunday.
Tryon received a restricted exemption from Rex Hospital Open tournament director Carson Gilbert. It's the first exemption Tryon has ever accepted, and tournament officials were glad to offer it, considering he was born at Rex Hospital in Raleigh.
"We really felt like tying his association to his birth at Rex made sense," Gilbert said. "He's a product of the hospital."
Gilbert said Tryon's story also played a part in his receiving an exemption.
"He just needs an opportunity," Gilbert said.
The young golfer was viewed as a rising star after he turned professional at 17 years, 6 months and 1 day. He was a junior in high school at the time, making his national reputation with low scores at professional events.
The sports agency IMG raced in and signed him. Others followed. Once he earned his tour card at qualifying school, he became the talk of the town at PGA Tour stops.
He received his high school diploma through a correspondence program. He never walked across the stage.
Competing among players seven years his senior, Tryon showed potential though he never lived up to overzealous expectations.
When he took a break from professional golf in 2009 and served as an instructor at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Orlando, Fla.
"I'm done with this," Tryon said he told himself. "I just can't handle this."
Improving his game
Things are different now.
"His golf game is miles better than it ever has been," said Bill Tryon, who serves as his son's swing instructor.
Over the past year, Tryon has improved ball-control and the ability to shape shots - two areas his game lacked as a youth.
Last year, Tryon returned to the course with something to prove. He made the cut at the U.S. Open, his first PGA Tour start since 2003.
Tryon performed poorly on his last day of qualifying school in December and missed a chance to compete on the PGA Tour. Without sponsors or any full-time status, he is trying to find a tour home.
The Nationwide Tour appears to be the perfect place. He must prove he can get there.
He has been forced to qualify on Mondays for tournaments and has yet to play his way into a field this season.
He wrote a letter to qualify for exemption status this week and said he is grateful for the opportunity.
"This could make my year," Tryon said. "So it's huge. I think that's why I'm so nervous. You don't want to go back to Q-School."
He enters this tournament with a respect for what it takes to make it on any level of golf.
Tryon holds no regrets about his decision to turn pro so young. He learned golf from his father, a North Carolina graduate and businessman. They treated the decision as a business deal - high risk, high reward.
Learning as he goes
Tryon, who often traveled by himself on the PGA Tour, oversaw all of his business deals. His parents, who had moved to Orlando when was 9, had their hands full with three other siblings.
"Was he ready?" Bill Tryon said. "Of course not. When I went into business for myself after college, I wasn't ready for that either. That's why I failed in a couple of businesses. I had to find one that worked. ... I figured Ty could learn from failure. Looks like he has."
Bill Tryon said his son never complained.
"It was a business experience," Bill Tryon said. "Because he's not the top 10 in the world now, people think some mistake was made. The mistake that would have been made was if he had not gone after his goals and dreams back then."
Tryon said he loves golf and can see himself playing into old age. He appreciates the chance to earn a living for his wife and son.
"If I just make the cut here, it helps me where I'll be getting in golf tournaments the rest of the year," he said. "This is a great life for me. I've been playing mini-tours the past four years. I'm just excited to be here."
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