The American was a three-time winner last year, and as a result, the 51 year old approaches the new campaign with considerably raised expectations compared to when he first secured his Senior Tour card in 2011 following 23 years working as a club professional.“I’d love to be able to build on last year,” he said. “If I could match what I did in 2012 then I would be exceeding my own expectations again.
“All my goals last year were accomplished. I had a great season. To win anywhere, on any tour, is difficult, but now I will set some new goals that I can achieve. You have to look and feel like you can meet them.”After winning the Senior Tour Qualifying School in November 2010, Thelen enjoyed a solid rookie season in 2011, recording four top ten finishes, including third place on his debut in the Berenberg Bank Masters.
By twist of fate, it was at the same event in Germany 12 months later that Thelen captured his maiden title, carding a final round albatross en route to finishing three shots clear of Peter Fowler, Barry Lane and Mark Mouland, with former World Number One Bernhard Langer a shot further back.Buoyed by that success, Thelen was victorious again seven days later, once more holding off the challenges of two more Ryder Cup Captains this time, when he beat Mark James and Ian Woosnam to win the Bad Ragaz PGA Seniors Open in Switzerland.
After losing to Englishman David J Russell in a play-off at the French Riviera Masters, he then claimed a hat-trick of titles in 2013 in the Fubon Senior Open, coming from three shots back to win by five strokes in Taiwan.It meant he went into the season-ending MCB Tour Championship in Mauritius just €8,157 behind second placed Barry Lane in the Order of Merit, and was firmly in contention to put pressure on the Englishman before a final round 78 meant he had to settle for ending a fine season in third position on the Money List.
That represented the best performance on the Senior Tour by an American since Pete Oakley won The Senior Open Championship in 2004 and finished second behind Carl Mason on the Order of Merit.Despite all of his success, Thelen is determined to maintain the one thing that contributed most to all of last season’s accomplishments, namely hard work.
“I never really put a lot of pressure on myself being a club pro for 23 years,” he said. “In my first season on the Senior Tour I didn’t know what to expect, but I came out and I learned how good these guys were and I had to work a little harder. Then last year I achieved all my goals, so all the work paid off.“Winning in Germany was probably the highlight of my year. Just getting that first victory out of the way, knowing that you can actually win out here and compete with these guys week in week out.
“Then after you get that first win, I wouldn’t ever say winning comes easier, but you feel a lot more comfortable when you are leading or chasing someone. It becomes a little more comfortable knowing that you can do it.“Going to Switzerland, the course didn’t set up for me well but I played very smartly and I putted well all year. That makes up for a lot of weaknesses you have in your game.
“The last day the wind got up and I felt I had a real chance. I’ve been a grinder all my life and that went in my favour. I felt good coming down the stretch, for sure.”As a result of his top four finish in the Senior Tour Order of Merit, Thelen earned a place in all three of the Senior Major Championships for 2013, including both the US Senior PGA Championship and the US Senior Open, meaning he will now have the opportunity to join defending champion Chapman in the fields at Bellerive Country Club in May and Omaha Country Club in July.
When he won the National PGA Club Professional Championship in America for a second time in 2003, winning either event must have seemed like a distant dream, but 10 years on, that vision somehow seems more achievable.“I really didn’t know what would happen when I joined the Senior Tour after being a club professional for so long,” he said. “I went to Q School in the States for the Champions Tour and didn’t make it. Then when I won the Q School here, I still didn’t know what to expect.
“I’d not been over to Europe before and I had only been outside of America a couple of times. But I felt comfortable from the moment I got over here. The players have really helped – they are fantastic.“It is a lot different here. The players are more individual over in the States, but here that is not the case. You have multiple winners, Ryder Cup players and captains but there is not one player I don’t feel comfortable speaking to. That really helped me settle in straight away and I really enjoy playing on the Senior Tour. That has all helped my success.”