Just before 8:30 a.m. local time Thursday, Kenny Perry and Jeff Sluman will begin play in the U.S. Senior Open, established figures known to most fans who will stroll the grounds at Omaha Country Club. Together, they have combined for 20 victories on the PGA Tour and won more than $50 million — and that doesn’t even get into their accomplishments and earnings on the Champions Tour, the over-50 circuit that amounts to a series of lucrative exhibitions. They have made their living and spent their lives on the golf course, and the biggest tournament of the seniors’ summer is just the latest stop, a chance for another trophy, another check.
In the following group: a 53-year-old, soon-to-be full-fledged family and marriage therapist who put behind a quarter century in the insurance business to go to graduate school in his late 40s, forgoing golf for a decade. He spent countless hours at a drop-in center for homeless men, not only studying why and how they ended up in such a state, but learning who they were.
The U.S. Senior Open is full of talented players essentially on the downside of their careers. Matt Sughrue shows it’s open, too, to those who have turned what might have been a mid-life crisis into a mid-life reinvention.
“I felt that there was something more that I wanted to accomplish in life,” Sughrue said.
Qualifying for the Senior Open fits with that, because somehow as life got busier — a new marriage, a new career — Sughrue’s golf got better. He grew up in Bethesda and lives in Arlington, and he has played for years at the course of his childhood, Bethesda Country Club. He is in Omaha by virtue of the 66 he shot in a sectional qualifying tournament last month at Musket Ridge Golf Club in Myersville, Md.,three shots clear of the rest of the field.
“I think a lot of us think, ‘Oh, I’d like to do something different or follow other dreams,’ and it’s hard to do at a certain age,” said his wife of three years, Carolyn. “But what I love about him and have always admired about Matt is how he takes on challenges — like a career change, like competing at golf at a very high level. That’s just part of his DNA.
“And I also think he tends to do his best when he’s facing the greatest challenges. It’s almost a parallel — his golf and his career.”
After starting college at the University of North Carolina, where he played golf, and transferring to and graduating from the University of Maryland in 1983, Sughrue did the traditional-path-to-success thing: software business consultant, moved around, recruited by a national insurance broker, started own business in 1998, grew that business, etc.
But maybe five or six years into running his own agency, Sughrue started getting — what’s the word? Fidgety? Antsy? He had worked with addicts and alcoholics in the jail system in Alexandria. He was involved with the First Tee of Washington, D.C. — the local chapter of a national organization that provides life skills lessons through golf to mostly urban kids — as a board member and, eventually, member of the executive committee. As he mulled a change, he started talking to counseling professionals, who encouraged him. He began researching the path, took the GREs, and in 2008, enrolled in Virginia Tech’s Marriage and Family Therapy program at the school’s Fairfax campus.
“I felt like at my age, I had something to offer,” Sughrue said. “I just felt like this is a great experience and something I could do well, so I went for it.”
To do it, though, he had to mix his schoolwork with his business. “There were moments that I have to say, if not for having just an incredible spouse in Carolyn, I don’t know if I would’ve made it,” he said. Now, he is a full-time resident, working two days a week at a private practice in Vienna and three days at centers for the homeless in Woodbridge and Leesburg.
“Matt just has a vision of wanting to be of help to people,” said Eric McCollum, the graduate program’s director, who served as Sughrue’s thesis advisor. “It would have been very easy for Matt, given his professional background, to move right into private practice with well-off clients. But with the work that he’s doing in shelters in the area, he’s really picked out a group of people that’s easy to ignore and has put forth a wonderful effort to give a voice to people who really have very little voice.”
Where, then, could golf fit? In 1990, Sughrue gave up his membership at Bethesda, and he essentially put down the game. When he took it up again around 2000, he “had no intention of playing good golf, or expectations that I would.” But he began working with Wayne DeFrancesco, the noted teacher and director of instruction at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, and started getting the feel again. In 2007, at 48, he qualified for the U.S. Amateur.
“I love competition at a high level, and I love the preparation required — the process of preparing for that,” Sughrue said. “I guess I’m somewhat goal-oriented. . . . It just makes me feel better that I’ve got something I’m working on like that.”
A couple of years ago, Carolyn Sughrue, moved by Matt’s enthusiasm, took up golf and began working with Bob Dolan, the longtime pro at Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase. Dolan has known Matt for years, and one day after one of Carolyn’s lessons, the two started talking. How could Matt, with little time for golf, get better at it?
They went with two thoughts: tighten up Sughrue’s short game and address a small problem in his swing plane. “He took those, and did the rest himself,” Dolan said.
Dolan played in the morning wave of that same qualifier at Musket Ridge, and when he stopped for lunch, he knew someone could go low in the afternoon. He knew, too, it could be Sughrue. The 66 earned him, free and clear, a spot in the 156-man Senior Open field.
“I was just overwhelmed,” Sughrue said. “To play my best golf when it meant the most is very gratifying.”
So Perry and Sluman — not to mention Tom Watson and Fred Couples and Tom Lehman and their like — can draw the galleries in Omaha. They have given their lives to golf, and golf has given back. When it’s over, Matt Sughrue will return to Arlington knowing that whatever he gives to his sport, he will have more to give — more to do, more to accomplish — in a whole new life.