The Family Business

In the case of Gunner Wiebe, son of PGA Tour player Mark Wiebe, the apple won’t fall far from the tee.

Mark Wiebe, twice victorious on the PGA Tour and an additional two times on the Champions Tour, never thought much about what career path his son, Gunner, would choose. Mark and his wife, Cathy, were satisfied knowing that Gunner appreciated golf, and was gifted with superb talent. However, the thought of Gunner turning professional wasn’t even on the radar.

When Gunner, a junior at the University of San Diego, which tied for eighth at the 2010 NCAA Championship, recently announced his intention to play golf professionally after graduating, Mark was taken aback, and seemed staggered at the decision. They were cognizant of Gunner’s golf skills, but it never occurred to Mark and Cathy that this would be his life’s calling.

Going into this particular family business isn’t easy. Ask Hale Irwin’s son, Steve, who struggled as a pro but has found great success in the amateur ranks. Then again, Craig Stadler’s son, Kevin, has done alright for himself.

Gunner’s already had moments of jubilation—winning last year’s U.S. Amateur Sectional Qualifier with a course-record 9-under-par 63 at Ptarmigan Country Club; earning the only local amateur qualifier spot in last January’s PGA Tour’s Farmer’s Insurance Classic at Torrey Pines—but the life of a professional golfer can also produce demoralizing lows, whether it’s traveling without the family, missing cuts on tour, or searching out sponsors and proper equipment.

Gunner has witnessed this firsthand. During the mid-2000s his father went through the lowest of lows, with three injuries: elbow surgery, a torn meniscus and plantar fasciitis. Take away the ability to walk or swing a club and you limit a golfer’s ability to support his family. The tightly-knit Wiebe clan supported Mark, as he worked diligently, hoping to regain his form as a professional golfer but always wondering whether this was how his career would end. During Mark’s rehabs, Gunner saw in his father the kind of determination and resolve required to retain the top form of a champion. He watched his father wear out the practice tee at Cherry Hills Country Club, and then stand there, fielding questions about missed cuts on the Nationwide Tour.

According to Gunner—who during this time starred on the 2006 Kent Denver team that went undefeated to win the CHSAA 4A championship—Mark never let the uneasiness, anxiety and stress show. When asked by club members how things were going, Mark would continually answer in the positive, replying, “Everything’s coming along.”
And it did. Two weeks after turning 50, Mark won his first Champions Tour event, SAS Championship, and followed it with another win a few months later.

Still competitive, Mark not only needs to concentrate on his own golf game but also mentor Gunner and be his cornerstone. Mark has been Gunner’s only instructor. In fact, while the duo spends time on the range or the course, Mark will seek assistance from Gunner on his own swing. The two are in simpatico with their games, even marking their balls identically, with a circle around the number.

Regarding Gunner’s maturity level and his “golf maturity,” Mark believes that having gone away to college and learning how to pass classes, has been an extremely valuable lesson for his progeny. And as for the golf maturity, he’s just approaching the tip of the iceberg. For years Gunner thought that everything was related to the golf swing—that if you scored poorly, you didn’t hit it well; and if you didn’t hit it well, you swung badly. Staying in the moment, and striving to not get too far ahead of his position on the course, is a lesson still on the table.

Tom Green, Channel 2 news anchor and family friend, has caddied for Mark on the PGA Tour and has seen Gunner grow up. When asked about the differences between father and son, Green said, “If Mark had had Gunner’s swing, he would have won on tour more. Gunner has the golf maturity of an old soul.”

Gunner has also looped for his father during the 2008 Senior British Open and the following week in the U.S. Senior Open, at The Broadmoor. On the course, the pair work on each other’s games, talk over strategies, and occasionally needle one another. But, when on the job, caddying for Mark is business first for Gunner. Like a desiccated sponge, he has saturated himself with the volume of golf savvy from his father and the veteran professionals with whom Mark was paired.

When asked what advice his father imparted, Gunner says, “On the golf course, it’s probably just take every shot with the same amount of importance, whether it's a three-inch putt or a 300-yard drive.”

Is it any wonder, with his father’s influence and this degree of golf knowledge at his disposal that Gunner would ever consider another career path than golf?

The same month as his 21st birthday, Gunner got an impossibly priceless gift: a start on the PGA Tour as an amateur. He defeated his college coach, Tim Mickelson, in a 22-hole playoff format, to earn the only local amateur qualifier spot for the 2010 Farmer’s Insurance Classic at Torrey Pines. Asking Mark about Gunner’s demeanor on the first tee causes his eyes to light up and his spirit to accelerate. Mark was pacing, according to Cathy, and the tension began to build. He was excited for Gunner to feel the nervousness in his stomach, knowing that first tee jitters never cease, but would be more tolerable with frequency.

The uneasiness Gunner felt, waiting for his name to be called was completely different than that of defeating his college coach or even competing and winning on the collegiate level. After an opening round of 73, one over par, and feeling dejected about his final performance, Gunner missed the cut with a 78 on day two. Still, he walked away sensing that he could compete on the greatest stage in golf. Always the supportive father, Mark relishes in recounting Gunner’s PGA Tour experience one stroke at a time, and agrees that his son’s time will come very soon.

Jerry Walters is co-host of In The Fairway, heard Saturday morning from 6-8 am, on Sports Radio 104.3 The Fan, and is the PGA Tour representative for Yes! Golf.