Golfer aims for European Tour

Rick Lewallen is going to Portugal to play golf for a week. But this is no European vacation for the 52-year-old Kannapolis resident.

A member of the Professional Golfers Association, Lewallen has spent the last couple of years trying to obtain his permanent card to play on the PGA Champions Tour (formerly known as the Senior Tour).

Now he's in the middle of a two-week trip across the pond, attempting to earn his right to become a regular touring member of the European Senior Tour.

Lewallen is participating in that tour's Qualifying School. He was scheduled to play in qualifying rounds (Stage 1) on Thursday and Friday. The top 72 who advance to Stage 2 will play four 18-hole rounds Monday through Thursday.

The top six players will be awarded full-time tour status. The next eight finishers will achieve conditional status.

"I thought, 'Maybe I will go try it,' " said Lewallen, whose home course is The Club at Irish Creek. "They have 17 events on their tour for their season, one of them in the U.S. I thought, 'I can go to Europe for 17 weeks.' "

It will be no easy task, but Lewallen is confident of his chances. He's coming off his best year as a professional, one in which he played in several prestigious national events. He earned the Carolinas PGA Section Player of the Year award, which will be presented to him Feb. 19 at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.

The highlight of his 2011 season was qualifying for and playing in the British Senior Open. From 2001 to 2004, he was a caddy on the U.S. Senior Tour, so being in the presence of some of the world's best senior golfers was not foreign territory.

Lewallen shot 74 (2 over par) and 79 (plus 7) over the first 36 holes and didn't make the cut to advance to the Saturday and Sunday rounds. He hopes he can put playing in the event on his annual agenda.

Lewallen attributes his recent successes to his increased driving distance. He says he averages about 290 yards off the tee, which is about 25 to 50 yards farther than many senior golfers.

He credits his improved driving distance to his increased physical flexibility, the result of a stretching and exercise program he adopted in the past eight months. Just two years removed from prostrate cancer surgery, Lewallen thinks he is in top physical condition.

As a student of Davis Ross, the pro at River Run Country Club in Davidson, Lewallen has also been working on his short game. Golf has become a year-round endeavor as he tries to reach the game's top levels.

As a final tuneup before the Portugal trip, he spent two weeks in Port St. Lucie, Fla., at the PGA Winter Championships. Last Monday, he was hopping onto a red-eye flight from Miami to Lagoa, Portugal, without returning to Kannapolis to see his wife, Libby.

"I just hope my clubs get there," said Lewallen.

Lewallen says traveling as a golf professional is sometimes very rigorous. Flying 4,000 miles to England or Portugal, for example, is a little extraordinary.

"It is your job," he said. "I think I need to dedicate 40 to 50 hours a week to golf. I feel I have to do more than what other people are doing, trying to make the tour. I'm very passionate about it."

While the European Senior Tour is not as prestigious, competitive or lucrative as Lewallen's ultimate goal - the PGA Champions Tour - he thinks spending several months overseas could help him elevate his game enough to qualify for the Champions Tour by the end of this year.

If he makes the European Seniors Tour, he would still be home enough during spring and summer to play in some stateside events, including Charlotte's Wells Fargo Championship May 3-6, for which he has qualified.