Larry Gilbert: Golfer Blossomed on Champions Tour

Larry Gilbert was in the forefront of a new type of professional golfer: The one who works as a club pro rather than chasing the PGA Tour, but then wins big on the senior tour after turning 50. Gilbert won a senior major along with a couple other Champions Tour titles in the 1990s. But he died about six months after winning that major.

Full name: Lawrence Allen Gilbert Sr.

Date of birth: November 19, 1942

Place of birth: Fort Knox, Kentucky

Date and place of death: January 21, 1998, in Lexington, Kentucky

Gilbert's Biggest Wins

Larry Gilbert never won on the PGA Tour. He had three official wins on the Champions Tour, including one senior major: Gilbert did win the PGA of America's club pro national championship multiple times, as well as eight Kentucky PGA Championships and other state titles:
  • PGA Club Professional Championship: 1981, 1982, 1991
  • Kentucky PGA Championship: 1974, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1990
  • Kentucky PGA Match Play Championship: 1984, 1986
  • Kentucky Open: 1968, 1975, 1976
  • Tennessee Open: 1970
  • Tennessee PGA Championship: 1971

More About Larry Gilbert

Early in the 1997 Champions Tour season, his fifth on the senior tour, Larry Gilbert got into 3-way playoff with Lee Trevino and Jim Dent at the Home Depot invitational. Dent won that playoff, but it was a sign that Gilbert's game had perked back up after a couple years without a win.

In July of 1997, that promise came to fruition at the Senior Players Championship, one of the Champions Tour's (then) four majors. With a cigar clamped between his teeth, as it almost always was when he played on the senior tour, Gilbert held or shared the lead after each round.

After the third round, Gilbert was tied for the lead with John Bland, Bob Dickson and Dave Stockton. But he moved into the lead with a birdie on the first hole of the final round, and never gave it up. He wound up winning by three strokes.

It was his 10th Top 10 finish of the year, and his career-best $270,000 check moved him into seventh place on the money list.

Gilbert said that one moment from the week that really stood out for him was being congratulated by Jack Nicklaus on the final green.

"That's a moment I'll treasure for as long as I live," Gilbert said.

Tragically, Gilbert lived only another 192 days.

A lifelong smoker, Gilbert went to the doctor for a routine physical just prior to the Bank One Classic in his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, the first week of September. When he got the results of the physical, they were devastating: He had lung cancer that had spread throughout his body.

Gilbert never played again. Surgery was impossible, but they tried radiation. It was too late. Gilbert was only 55 years old when he died in January of 1998, only six months after his biggest-ever victory.

Gilbert was born in and grew up in Kentucky. It was baseball that earned him a college scholarship to Middle Tennessee State University, but it was golf in which Gilbert led the school to glory. He won the 1965 NCAA College Division individual championship, the school's first-ever individual national champion in any sport. And he led the squad to the team national championship that year, too, and to three conference championships.

Gilbert turned pro in 1967, and 1972 was the only year he made a concerted effort to play on the PGA Tour. It didn't work out.

Gilbert was never a regular player on the PGA Tour. He made a total of 30 starts in PGA Tour tournaments from 1972 through 1992. Gilbert never finished in the Top 10 in any tournament, and made the cut in only 11 of those events. His best-ever finish in a PGA Tour event was 25th place in the 1982 World Series of Golf.

Gilbert probably could have made another go at it, if he had chosen — his pre-Champions Tour career wasn't devoid of victories. In fact, Gilbert won some big events before turning 50. They were just (mostly) PGA of America tournaments for club pros rather than PGA Tour tournaments.

The biggest of those wins was the PGA Club Professional Championship in 1981, 1982 and 1991. That's the national championship of club pros and got Gilbert in the PGA Championship. He also won the Kentucky PGA Championship eight times and had numerous other wins in Kentucky and Tennessee. He earned a reputation as one of the best-playing club pros in the country. He won the Kentucky PGA's Player of the Year Award 12 times.

But Gilbert had made a choice early his career to stay home in Kentucky, working his head professional job, remaining with his family.

When Gilbert turned 50 late in 1992, though, he decided it was time to try again. He earned his Champions Tour card by winning the 1992 qualifying tournament.

And it was a different story on the Champions Tour, where Gilbert never missed a cut. He made 149 senior starts, with 51 Top 10 finishes and 22 Top 5 finishes. In addition to his three career senior victories, Gilbert finished second in six tournaments and third in six more.

In an article in which the magazine called him "a hero to the nation's club pros," Sports Illustrated wrote that, "In 1993, after having been the medalist at the Senior Q-School the previous fall, Gilbert and his wife, Brenda, took the last $4,000 out of their bank account and gambled that Larry could compete against the best players of his generation. In only his second start Gilbert won $12,000, and he went on to earn $516,000 as a rookie."

In 1993 and 1994, Gilbert led the Champions Tour in the statistical category of Total Driving, a measure that combines a player's driving distance and driving accuracy.

The lowest money list finish in his five years on the Champions Tour was 26th. Gilbert was 17th in earnings as a rookie in 1993, and was ninth in 1994 when he won his first two victories. And Gilbert finished ninth again in his last year, 1997, despite leaving the tour following the cancer diagnosis.

Gilbert played in 16 majors on the PGA Tour (mostly PGA Championships) but made only two cuts. But in senior majors, he posted seven Top 10 finishes in 17 career starts. In addition to his victory in the 1997 Senior Players Championship, he tied for second place in the 1995 Senior PGA Championship. He also was fourth in the The Tradition and tied seventh in the Senior PGA in his final year of 1997 — Top 10 (including a win) in all three majors he played that year.

Gilbert is a member of the Kentucky Golf Hall of Fame and the Middle Tennessee State University Athletics Hall of Fame. Today, the Kentucky Section of the PGA gives out the Larry Gilbert Player of the Year Award each year.

Brenner, Morgan. The Majors of Golf*, Volume 2, 2009, McFarland and Company. Kentucky PGA Professional Championship, History & Past Champions, Hall of Fame, "Larry Gilbert,"
Middle Tennessee State University. Hall of Fame, "Larry Gilbert."
New York Times. "Larry Gilbert, 55, Well-Known Member of Golf's Senior Tour," Jan. 22, 1998,
PGA Tour. 1998 Senior PGA Tour Official Media Guide. "Larry Gilbert,"
Reed, William F. Sports Illustrated, "Lighting it up: Larry Gilbert might not be a household name, but he smoked the stars at the Senior Players," July 21, 1997,
Spokane Spokesman-Review. "Golfer Larry Gilbert Dies of Lung Cancer," Jan. 22, 1998,
Sports Illustrated. "A Lesson From Gilbert," Jan. 28, 1998, "Larry Gilbert,"
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