Sponsor's exemption follows father to links

Two weeks removed from graduation from Coastal Carolina, the stakes are high for Charlie Winegardner when he tees off Thursday in the Mid-Atlantic Championship. It will be the first Web.com Tour event for the Lothian native. With a strong showing at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm, Winegardner can qualify for more events and jump-start his fledgling professional career.

Despite his tender years, it's a routine with which Winegardner, 22, has some familiarity. When he was in kindergarten, Winegardner's father, Tom, left his job running an auto dealership to take his shot at professional golf. He played two years on the Hooters Tour.

With his brief fling with pro golf, Tom Winegardner satisfied an itch. He hopes his son's career has more sustainability.

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Mid-Atlantic Championship first round
When » Thursday
Where » TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm

"I didn't have the background to know what I was doing," Tom said. "Charlie is going into it on more solid ground."

Over the past decade, Charlie has been one of the Washington area's most successful young players and was an all-Big South Conference choice. His eligibility expired a year ago, but he remained at school for the year to get his degree, serving an internship as an assistant coach. He also turned pro last fall, squeezing some mini-tour events into his schedule.

Charlie is playing this week on a sponsor's exemption. Tournament director Teo Sodeman's college roommate, Dirk Schulze (Bowie), was a Prince George's County high school rival of Tom (Friendly) and suggested that Tom's son would be a good choice.

"This is a chance to do something big -- take my career to the next level," Charlie said. "I've been playing Hooters, eGolf, Monday qualifiers, basically preparing myself for this experience."

Tom, 52, had no such preparation for his lone tournament on the Web.com Tour, then called the Nike Tour. On a business trip in New York and on a whim, he tried to Monday qualify for the 1995 Nike Buffalo Open. As a 34-year-old amateur, he not only made it but contended. In the final round, he opened with two birdies and was on the leaderboard but faded to a 74. It was enough to convince Winegardner to give pro golf a shot the following year.

After coming home in 1997, Tom put as much into his son's golf career as his own, playing sporadically but well enough to combine with Charlie to win the Maryland Father-Son Championship three times and contend in other local events.

Tom tried to catch lightning in a bottle Tuesday at his home club, Old South, where qualifying was held for the Mid-Atlantic Championship. Joining his son in the tournament would have been an ultimate accomplishment. But Tom, whose home overlooks the first tee at Old South, shot an 82, 15 strokes shy of qualifying.

"Just an old guy who can't play anymore," joked Tom, who will caddie for his son at Avenel and made his role clear.

"He said, 'This week, I'm your caddy, not your father,'?" Charlie said with a smile.