Posted: Mar 19, 2013 3:15 PM by McD Media
At age 39, he's pretty much past career turning points. In fact, Ryan Hietala seems happy with his life.
But this week's Chitimacha Louisiana Open represents a challenge and an opportunity ... and could determine whether he continues his quest to make it back to the PGA Tour. And he knows this week's trips around his old Le Triomphe stomping grounds could be career-altering.
"A lot can change this week," Hietala said following Monday's Dwight Andrus Insurance Pro-Am competition. "It's a huge opportunity. It's not my last shot, but it is a big chance for me and I'm going to embrace it."
Hietala has embraced a lot in his life over the past nine months. He accepted a position as assistant golf coach at Boise State, under long-time Tour player Kevin Burton, late last summer. He and wife Jennifer, a former collegiate player at Boise, were already living there, and she gave birth to their first child, Isabella, in late September.
The 6-foot-5 blond bomber had all but put tournament golf in the rear-view mirror - until he played his 14th and final Web.com Tour event at the hometown Albertsons Boise Open in mid-September. He missed the cut by a stroke there ... part of a trend that saw him cash only three checks in his 14 events.
"I was going to be done with competitive golf," he said. "But there was Jennifer nine months pregnant and following me, and she saw something. She saw that I still had the desire to play."
That led to a trip to back to the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament ("Q-school"), where he had to play to retain what Tour status he had. Keeping his current conditionally exempt status led to him receiving one of the sponsor exemptions into this week's Open.
"I was happy coaching and being a dad," he said, "but she wanted me to go to Q-school. Now that I know I have her support, and with the support of the folks at Boise State, I'm going to play the best I can as often as I can."
Hietala was living in Lafayette and was a regular on the Web.com Tour - and a regular at some weekly games at Le Triomphe - when he surprised everyone and won the 2005 Chitimacha Louisiana Open title and its $90,000 check. He finished 32nd on the money list that year, and at the end of that season took 18th place at "Q-school" to earn his PGA Tour card.
He played the "big" tour for one year and later won a second Web.com Tour event, taking the Cox Classic in Omaha in 2008. But the last three years have been a struggle, with the 1998 UTEP graduate making only 12 cuts in 50 events in those three years.
"The last three years had been tough in golf," he said. "When the chance to coach came up, I embraced it. I coached the fall, did a lot of traveling with the team, played a lot with the kids on the team and that made me a better golfer. I saw things from a different perspective, and I was looking forward to a future in coaching and being a dad."
Hietala still has that future - the Boise team recently had its best finish in over a year, and the Broncos have four more tournaments this season including a Phoenix tourney next week - but he also has a future on the Tour if things fall right this week.
The Louisiana Open falls just before the Tour's first "shuffle," where players who have had recent success improve their status. A good performance here could lead to getting into more Web.com events, and with the PGA Tour's change in advancement that puts huge emphasis on Web.com success, a lot can happen in a short amount of time.
"I just figured, let's make the most of this week, shuffle up, get that card and have all the things I ever wanted in golf," Hietala said. "This week is huge for me."
It won't be easy. Except for "Q-school," the Thursday and Friday rounds last September at Boise were his last competitive circuits. But Le Triomphe has been friendly in the past, especially in that magical 2005 event when he shot 66-71-65-68-270 (-18) and managed a lengthy and nerve-racking two-putt par on the 72nd hole to win by one shot.
With Le Triomphe's driver-friendly layout - even in his 2012 struggles, Hietala ranked ninth on tour in driving distance with a 306.9 average - anything can happen.
"I've got a lot of good memories here," he said. "I played in the Monday pro-am with the same guys I used to play Wednesday games with, I'm playing with more close friends on Wednesday and I'm staying with people who I've known for years. I'm so appreciative of the Open for giving me this chance.
"But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit scared. The good thing is I know I have nothing to lose and everything to gain."