His eyes on the prize: PGA Champions Tour

Sometimes Rick Lewallen has to explain to people that he plays golf for a living.

As a member of the Professional Golfers Association, Lewallen plays in the Carolinas Section events all year long, but some acquaintances just don't grasp the concept.

When one of its feature tournaments, the North Carolina Open, tees off at The Club at Irish Creek on Tuesday, Lewallen will have to explain to people why he's not playing. And it will be hard.

Lewallen, a 51-year-old Kannapolis resident, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in January and had surgery to remove it May 18. He will be serving as an honorary starter at the tournament, strongly believing his better days in golf lie not far ahead.

Lewallen, who's In the middle of what he calls a five-year plan, wants to become a full-time member of the PGA's Champions Tour (formerly the Senior Tour). In November, he will compete in the tour's Qualifying School event in Coral Springs, Fla., hoping to earn one of five available full-time tour cards.

The cancer surgery will keep him out of his home course's marquee tournament and out of golf in general for several weeks. But Lewallen views it as a minor inconvenience in his quest. Coincidentally, it came at a time when he was "playing the best golf of my life."

Originally from Asheboro, Lewallen's family moved to Myrtle Beach, where he became a high school state champion and an all-American at Coastal Carolina. The son of a club pro, Lewallen has worked several jobs in the golfing industry, including as a club pro himself.

He played in several PGA events in the 1980s and '90s, including four Greater Greensboro Opens. In 1993, he shot an opening-day 69 and was tied for third place with well-known PGA Tour golfer Jay Haas and several others going into the second round.

Shortly after he moved from Greensboro to Kannapolis in 2000, Lewallen turned to caddying on the Champions Tour. Between 2001 and 2004, he assisted the likes of Andy Bean, Hubert Green and Charlotte's Terry Mauney. Saying he was weary of all the travel, Lewallen returned to Kannapolis.

He lives about five minutes from Irish Creek and proposed to his wife, Libby, at the 18th green. They were married at the first tee of Pinehurst No. 2 in 2005. Their wedding invitations were designed as scorecards.

At age 48, Lewallen decided he was going to give himself five years to make it on the Champions Tour. He quit his job as a pro at a sporting goods store and devoted himself to playing full time.

Last year he played at the Q-School in Scottsdale, Ariz. With the then-recent death of his mother-in-law weighing on him, Lewallen shot 70 and 69 in the first two rounds but finished with a 73 and 76, tying for 56th among 78 players.

Lewallen said he plays about eight hours a day at Irish Creek when he's not on the road at a tournament.

"You have to do this (golf) all the time like a regular job, or even more," he said. "You have to have your heart into it. You have to have support. It's hard to do it by yourself."

Doctors detected the prostate cancer in January, just months before the first Carolinas Section events of the year. He continued to play golf and finished no worse than third in his four events leading up to the surgery.

So at the North Carolina Open this week at Irish Creek, Lewallen will meet and greet the competitors and pass out scorecards. His doctor has told him he could be healthy enough to chip and putt two weeks after the surgery.

The first event Lewallen plans to compete in is the Myers Park Pro-Am in Charlotte June 23-24. He also will attend qualifying events for the U.S. Senior Open in late July and the Champions Tour event in Hickory in early October.

If he earns his Champions Tour card at the Q-School in Florida in November, he won't have to attend anymore qualifying events.