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The harsh realities of golf’s mini tours

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A casual golf fan who occasionally enjoys watching final round coverage of a PGA Tour event must have a skewed opinion about the lives of professional golfers, namely, that anyone with an oversized staff bag is living the dream. But for every Ian Poulter who owns a fleet of Ferraris and struts around like a movie star, there are plenty of golfers who practically live out of their Ford Fiestas and dream about getting their big break.

Golf outside the highest professional level is a proverbial cutting room floor. For every golfer who eventually plays his way to the big stage, there are thousands who don’t. It’s a harsh reality predetermined by the sheer fact that it takes a high degree of skill, stubbornness and certainly not least of all – luck – to earn a place on the PGA Tour.

The qualification process has remained largely unchanged since the PGA Tour was formalized in the 1960s. The most direct route, Q-School, allowed any golfer, amateur or professional with a handicap index of two or lower, to test their mettle in golf’s version of the Hunger Games. Anyone who didn’t survive Q-School could attempt to play his way onto the Tour by way of Monday qualifiers or sponsor exemptions, both of which are low percentage gambles that very few ever cash in on.

What has changed in the last couple of decades is the ever-expanding number of developmental tours that have raised their banners across the country. Although Ben Hogan isn’t officially credited with starting the first mini tour, the 30-city Hogan Tour, which began in 1990, is probably the most famous. The tour was set up to allow aspiring pros (many of whom were cash-strapped) to drive around from tour stop to tour stop in successive weeks, much like Hogan’s contemporaries had in golf’s yesteryears. Over the years the Hogan Tour (now the Web.com Tour) expanded geographically, upped its prize money and became to the PGA Tour what off-broadway is to aspiring actors.

The NGA Pro Golf Tour, more commonly referred to as the Hooters Tour, predates the Hogan Tour. It was started in 1988 by Rick (T.C.) Jordan who inherited some money from his family’s business in pharmaceuticals and made a lot more of it through real estate and restaurant opportunities. Jordan invested $6 million from his own pocket and ran the tour independently until ceding title sponsorship rights to Hooters of America, Inc. in 1994.

Over the years the Hooters Tour has graduated some notable alumni including major championship winners Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley, John Daly and Zach Johnson.

Keegan Bradley graduated from the Hooters Tour-1

Keegan Bradley, a graduate of the NGA Hooters Tour, won the 2011 PGA Championship and is one of the Tour’s best success stories.

And now that the Q-School has been revised to replenish the roster of the Web.com Tour, expect more players to take up a path of apprenticeship that could meander through the Pepsi Tour, over to the Peach State Professional Golf Tour, and everything in-between. With more than 60 tours in operation world-wide, the prevailing wisdom ought to be play hard and pack light.

So You Want To Run A Mini Tour?

Jeff Flees used to manage a mortgage firm in Worthington, Ohio. But his wife’s protracted health concerns led him to reevaluate his career prospects. Nowadays, he’s the president of a three-person operation that runs the nascent Flagship Golf Tour.

“I had a successful career in the mortgage banking industry for 16 years, however in 2011 my wife had two major surgeries, one of which was brain surgery to clip aneurysms she had been living with,” says Flees. “My wife is one of the most incredible, inspirational people you will ever meet or know. I felt it was important to take time off to be with her while she recovered. When the time was right, my passion for golf and experience with people in the industry led my to analyze the developmental tour business and start the Flagship Golf Tour.”

The first scheduled event will be played this summer at The Journey at Pechanga in Temecula, Calif. The single day, 18-hole stroke play championship will feature a $5,000 purse and will benefit a number of charities including the Brain Aneurysm Foundation. The entry fee for professionals is $300 ($200 for amateurs) and unlike many higher profile tours, there is no annual membership fee.

For those of us who have never played golf for a living, taking up membership on a mini tour is a significant expense when combined with standard tournament fees and general travel expenses. Existing tours with deep fields and decent purses can charge $1,000 or more for membership. That will help you get a bona fide member packet, a tour hat and access to practice facilities at host courses. To actually play in a tournament event, you’ll likely drop close to another $1,000. A single season on the NGA Hooters’ 2013 Carolina Series will run a pro golfer a little over $10,000 in fees (depending on whether or not they have pre-existing status on the tour). Sounds almost reasonable until you start factoring things like groceries and gas money, or taking a date out to a dinner and a movie.

By contrast, there’s next to no risk to play a Flagship Golf Tour event and the tour awards prize money to the top 33 percent of the field, which is consistent with the policy maintained by more established entities. The tour does differ significantly from many competitors in that tournament events are spread out nationally and a champion is crowned after 18 holes.

“We decided on the one-day 18-hole tournaments because they make more logistical and financial sense,” says Flees. “The benefit of a one-day, 18-hole event is that we can keep the expenses down and reduce the time commitment for everyone involved in the tournament. We respect what the more established tours are doing. We are not trying to directly compete with them.”

Whether the Flagship Golf Tour finds its niche and succeeds beyond the first couple of seasons is difficult to predict. The term “boom and bust” is often used to describe mini tours that have disappeared after some initial success. Not surprisingly, the pressure to succeed falls squarely on a busy owner’s shoulders. You’re expected to be equally adept at playing the role of savvy business manager and gregarious promoter. Some days call for negotiating contracts with vendors and sponsors. Other days you’ll be rubbing elbows with potential investors or stumping on behalf of your tour around the clock on Twitter.

For many business executives, running a mini tour is a labor of love (not to mention an expensive hobby).

Alex Spanos had a brief run lending his name to one of the preeminent developmental tours on the West Coast before scuttling the business after three years. Spanos was a scratch golfer in his youth and made his fortune in the construction services industry. He is better known for owning a majority stake in the San Diego Chargers football team.

Full field events on the Spanos California Tour featured sizable purses including a $250,000 cash grab called the A.G. Spanos California Open. Local boys Jason Gore, John Merrick and Peter Tomasulo had stints on the tour before moving on to play much bigger venues.

“I have always wanted to be part of a golf tour,” Spanos was quoted as saying. “My goal with this tour is to have it become the biggest and best in this state, if not the country, where young professionals and amateurs get the opportunity to show their talent and ability.”

Even in its final year of operation, the California Tour was arguably still growing. The tour signed Ameriquest Mortgage Company as a presenting sponsor, hired a San Diego area public relations firm to raise brand awareness, increased the number of events to 16 and set aside $2.5 million in available winnings. But they shut the tour down anyway. Perhaps that was the intention all along.

According to executives associated with Spanos, running the tour had become prohibitively expensive. It also didn’t help that a far more expansive developmental tour made a glitzy splash in 2006, promising tournament winnings to rival the PGA Tour.

mini-tours-numbers-chart

Backed by the now defunct Greens Worldwide Inc., the U.S. Pro Golf Tour was expected to offer $300,000 for a standard event and as much as $5 million for one of its majors that would be played on a Donald Trump-owed course and broadcast on television by ESPN. There were rumblings about impending doom from the start and the tour folded after the initial season. In the process, the U.S. Pro Golf Tour defrauded hundreds of golfers who forked over thousands of dollars to participate in events that were never going to be staged.

As any professional golfer who has scrambled on the mini tours can tell you, there are plenty of similar misadventures that players have fallen victim to. Most of them are simply too obscure to grab the public’s attention, even within golfing circles. And in some ways, it’s a perverse right of passage.

The (Not So) Charmed Life Of A Professional Golfer

More than likely, you haven’t heard of Andrew Jensen. He’s just another golfer playing on the PGA Tour of Canada who’s had scrapes with success, failure, injuries and heartbreak. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We pick up his story in March. Jensen has driven down to Florida, as far south from frigid Ottawa as his Pontiac G6 will take him. He intends to spend a month living in the Sarasota area getting into shape for a season that will play out primarily back in Canada. Except that the weather in Florida, in fact for much of the southern United States, isn’t living up to expectations.

Too many mornings in the Sunshine State start off borderline freezing; as for Jensen’s game, it’s not a whole lot better. In his first competitive event of the season, he shoots 2-over and misses the cut. Over the next several weeks his game starts trending in the right direction. He records his best finish on the Florida swing at TPC Prestancia in Sarasota. It’s a limited-field event of 28 participants playing for a purse that barely covers rent for a single-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Jensen has an opportunity to finish 2-under on the first day, but rinses two balls on the last hole for an ugly double. He plays marginally worse the next day, making three straight bogies on the front nine, carding a 75 and finishing three strokes outside of earning a paycheck.

Three events come and go and all Jensen has to show for it some middling scores. It’s a good blow to one’s wallet (and psyche), but Jensen has developed some thick skin over the years. He’s been playing professionally off and on since 2008. He’s taken time off to heal from injuries and to recover from periodic episodes of depression. And while it may be difficult to spin positives from his Florida swing based on scoring alone, Jensen is grateful to be playing golf regularly again.

“When I was playing injured in 2010 and playing bad . . . the debt was increasing fast,” says Jensen. “Golf was no longer fun, it was work, it was gambling to break even. My passion for the game left me very quickly but I tried to tough it out and keep playing regardless. That mentality bled into two awful seasons on tour and my eventual hanging up the clubs in 2011 to enter into the real world and start working and getting above water financially. Luckily, over time the passion came back.”

Jensen played competitively for the University of Ottawa and qualified to play for the Canadian Tour the year following his graduation in 2007. Although some golfers would have journeyed south to play in more seasonably warm conditions year-round, Jensen preferred to stay closer to home, not all that surprising for a person who habitually found comfort in maintaining rigorous routine.

andrew-jensen-photo

Unfortunately, there was very little in the way of predictability to his first three seasons on tour. Jensen made the cut just twice in 14 events in 2008, making $870. He earned another $3,100 on the tour in 2010-11 and watched his confidence fade as debts rose.

 “When you can solely focus on the routine and the process, good play takes care of itself,” says Jensen. “When you have to figure out a way to pay the bills, it takes away from your routine.  Over the years, my play has struggled and consequently my funds have depleted, forcing me into off-season work in Canada over the winters. The routine has to switch to fitness, indoor practice, mental work, and above all a ‘real job.’”

His outlook rapidly declined in 2011. A family physician prescribed an anti-depressant medication that had an unintended side-effect of actually increasing suicidal urgings. Standing over a bathroom sink with a mouth full of anti-depressant pills, Jensen nearly took his life that September. Fortunately he spat the medication out and was weened off the anti-depressant a few weeks later. Through therapy, Jensen came to regard golf as a trigger for his mental issues.

“Every time I played poorly, it just kept getting worse and worse emotionally,” Jensen told the Ottawa Citizen in 2012.

Jensen isn’t the only golfer who has struggled with depression. The LPGA Tour’s Christina Kim was openly forthcoming about her own personal struggles in an interview with Golf Digest. Still, there aren’t many golfers, let alone athletes in general, that are willing to go public. It is habitually accepted that athletes need to maintain an edge over their competition. And nothing blows an athlete’s cover faster than revealing they have fears and doubts.

“The numbers on depression are staggering, it affects far more people than many believe,” says Jensen. “The pressure, isolation and competition in professional golf are massive triggers to get players down on themselves both on and off the course. From my experiences with mental illness it’s a hard road to play golf and keep things silent. The minute I came out with my struggles, the support and solidarity that came from fellow players was great. No one knows the struggles of a mini tour player better than a fellow mini tour player.”

Historically, the various developmental tours have left players to their own devices. Some tours offer discounts on sponsor-provided apparel and equipment, but rarely is sports psychology factored into any of the few membership perks enjoyed on tour. By offering player coaching from the outset, the Flagship Golf Tour is looking to differentiate itself even further from its more established competitors.

“We are working with excellent professionals who can offer our players guidance in these areas,” says Flees. “The players will get initial information and coaching made available to them free of charge, however if they wish to retain these professionals for additional assistance there would be a charge.”

The Flagship Golf Tour has developed a relationship with David Donatucci, a Titelist Performance Institute certified trainer a member of the PGA of America, as well as PGA member Rick Sessinghaus, a proven sports psychologist. It will be interesting to see how many players actually seek out coaching and if it spurs other developmental tours to consider similar service offerings in the future.

As Jensen can tell you from experience, playing on the mini tours is a grind. Reflecting on the past five years as a golf pro, Jensen says, “[The mini tours haven’t] taught me too much about golf itself, apart from the reality that making putts is everything. It’s taught me that I am very determined and driven, easily discouraged at times, but still very motivated. Hard work for five years really hasn’t gotten me too far in this game so I’ve learned I need to work smarter now.”

A Long And Winding Road

Imagine you’re 16 years old, living by yourself in California. Your preternatural golfing abilities land you a future spot on the University of Oklahoma golf team. Your stellar college play gets noticed and you make the Walker Cup team. After three years you leave school early and declare your intentions to turn pro. You receive a sponsor’s exemption into your first PGA Tour event and you finish runner up. A year later you earn tour card in your first go-around at Q-School and ultimately become a multimillionaire before the age of 22.

It’s almost a lock that most golfing careers will not pan out like Anthony Kim’s supercharged ascent to stardom. With any luck, you might be fortunate enough mimic James Hahn, who clawed his way onto the PGA Tour after spending nine years playing on the mini tours and supplementing his income selling ladies shoes at Nordstrom’s.

mini-tour-chart

So if you are a talented golfer, what exactly are your chances?

In an unrelated sport, the NCAA has compiled statistics on the number of high school basketball players who continue to play professionally after graduating from college. Of the roughly 156,000 high school seniors who play basketball, 44 will be drafted into the NBA. Even at less than 1 percent, a basketball player has a better chance of filling one of the 350 or so roster spots in the NBA than a golfer has of sharing a fairway with Phil Mickelson.

Andrew Jensen doesn’t believe that a talent gap is keeping most mini tour players from propelling themselves to the next level.

“I think it has more to do with the off course hurdles than the competition,” says Jensen. “I’ve seen many great players pack it in because of their financial situation, the travel, or the time away from family, just to name a few reasons. I don’t believe players stop because they don’t think they have what it takes.”

There are thousands of golfers playing on the mini tours every year. What happens to the ones that don’t make it?

Perhaps some of them get a taste of success at the higher reaches of golf and regress. Others washout after only a few seasons on the road. Some quit playing and take up teaching while others quit the game entirely.

In spite of what is easily construed as abject failure, any player who has made it as far as the mini tours has an experience with the game that few golfers rarely come in contact with. It may not be the sort of ending that a Hollywood producer would dream up. But as golf announcer Gary Koch famously quipped, it’s better than most.

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Rusty Cage is a contributing writer for GolfWRX, one of the leading publications online for news, information and resources for the connected golfer. His articles have covered a broad spectrum of topics - equipment and apparel reviews, interviews with industry leaders, analysis of the pro game, and everything in between. Rusty's path into golf has been an unusual one. He took up the game in his late thirties, as suggested by his wife, who thought it might be a good way for her husband to grow closer to her father. The plan worked out a little too well. As his attraction to the game grew, so did his desire to take up writing again after what amounted to 15-year hiatus from sports journalism dating back to college. In spite of spending over a dozen years working in the technology sector as a backend programmer in New York City, Rusty saw an opportunity with GolfWRX and ran with it. A graduate from Boston University with a Bachelor's in journalism, Rusty's long term aspirations are to become one of the game's leading writers, rising to the standard set by modern-day legends like George Peper, Mark Frost and Dan Jenkins. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: August 2014 Fairway Executive Podcast Interview http://golfindustrytrainingassociation.com/17-rusty-cage-golf-writer (During this interview I discuss how golf industry professionals can leverage emerging technologies to connect with their audience.)

28 Comments

28 Comments

  1. Mike Boatright

    Jan 23, 2017 at 4:31 pm

    Iv’e researched heavily these mini tours and have found the leaders to have a scoring average of say 65.66 etc.. The pga tour needs to get off it’s elitists ass and give these good players a legitimate chance! Any time you set up a format that requires you to either have a sponsor exemption or play great for 6 days straight just to make it on the minor leagues is kinda making it far fetched for the majority of good players who aren’t rich. They do have some monday qualifying events which is just a blood fest first you need to pre qualify to make it into the qualifier which is you vs 4 guys usually a 65 loses and a 64 wins,then you qualify for the monday and it’s the same story you shoot 67 on a windy day the other guy shoots 66. By then the winner is so tired and nervous from his start that he shoots 75 70 and misses the cut by one stroke how is this fair?

  2. adam

    Jul 25, 2014 at 9:01 pm

    Listen, if you’re good enough you will sail through Web.com Q School and be on that AAA tour. If you’re good enough there, you’ll be on the PGA tour. Much easier today. Web.com Q school doesn’t care if you went to Stanford or Truckee Meadows Community College.

  3. jess robinson

    Jun 7, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    “Golf is happiness for
    Happiness is achievement.
    The father of achievement is motivation
    The mother is encouragement.
    The fine golf swing is truly achievement
    Man may lie, cheat, and steal for gain.
    But, these will never gain the golf swing
    To gain the golf swing man must work.
    Yet it is work without toil
    It is exercise without the boredom.
    It is intoxication without the hangover
    It is stimulation without the pills.
    It is failure yet its successes shine even more brightly
    It is frustration yet it nourishes patience.
    It irritates yet its soothing is far greater
    It is futility yet it nurtures hope.
    It is defeating yet it generates courage
    It is humbling yet it ennobles the human spirit.
    It is dignity yet it rejects arrogance
    Its price is high yet its rewards are richer
    Some say it’s a boy’s pastime yet it builds men
    It is a buffer for the stresses of today’s living.
    It cleanses the mind and rejuvenates the body
    It is these things and many more.
    For those of us who know it and love it
    Golf is truly happiness.”
    — Paul Bertholy

  4. Frank Dolan

    May 19, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    Most authors make mistakes, specifically for those readers who look for mistakes. If you look past the mistakes, you will really enjoy the article. Another home run for you Mr. Cage. Keep those articles coming – I enjoy them tremendously.

    P. S. – Did I make any grammatical errors?

  5. youstink

    May 11, 2013 at 7:43 pm

    I never want to chase a dream. I just want to go to my 9-5 job and sit in my cubical all day and grind my teeth over the fact my wife is probably banging the pool guy that I pay with the money I saved from my boring conservative life…

    When the day ends I want to put myself to sleep by correcting Blog articles on a golf website full of folks that can’t appreciate truthful information because they think they know everything…

  6. Sean

    May 10, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    I enjoyed the article. There are a few segments I can relate to as well.

  7. Steve Pratt

    May 10, 2013 at 1:53 am

    I thought this was a terrific article. It brought back good and bad memories of my experiences on various mini tours.

    In my opinion, the author nicely captures the essence of life and struggles on the mini tours.

  8. Danny

    May 9, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    Ian poulter will be broke and infamous in 10 years. They guy never wins except for the Ryder Cup which doesn’t pay. Normally the guys that got it dont flaunt it, and the ones that flaunt it don’t have it. Look at Warren Buffet compared to Donlad Trump. Trump has been bankrupt several times and sues publications that post his real worth which is about 1/10th what he says it is.

    • Curt

      May 10, 2013 at 12:22 am

      Donald Trump just inquired about your physical address, so he coulde serve you!!! Dont answer the door!!!

    • Shawn

      May 10, 2013 at 11:20 am

      I think you’ll find that a lot of successful people have had bankruptcies in their past. That line of reasoning doesn’t make a lot of sense. Trump’s liquid worth is far less than his worth on paper, but that’s a pretty common thing for people who own a lot of stuff, rather than have a lot of money.

      I’m no Poulter fan, but he seems to have an awful lot of cash for a guy that never wins.

  9. sdgfhjkhgjkdfsfg

    May 9, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    the best line in the article:
    “But for every Ian Poulter who owns a fleet of Ferraris and struts around like a movie star, ”

    Ian is a new money brat. It’s amazing how much that guy brags.

    • Dave

      May 10, 2013 at 10:12 am

      If there was one player I could punch in the face it would no doubt be IJP. By the way, the logo for his clothing line is ABSOLUTELY TERRIBLE… what designers is this guy hiring!?

  10. Tool Status

    May 9, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    id probably tear up one of these mini tours, but id rather just spend my time with the ladies

  11. danny

    May 9, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    I blame these guy’s parents. There comes a time in everyone’s life when you can’t chase your dreams any longer. Sometimes we can’t see it ourselves and the worst thing you can have is parents and loved ones feeding in to that dream. I had a sister who wanted to be a doctor in the worst way but couldn’t get in to med school. I also had a roommate who longed to be a fighter pilot, yet didn’t have great eye sight. Both of these people were told by loved ones that it’s time to grow up and move on, and both are living happy lives because of it now. It takes a real man to admit when enough is enough and it’s time to move on.

    • Nick

      May 9, 2013 at 9:12 pm

      Why Should anyone give up on their dreams ever? You only get one shot at life, do what makes you happy and forget the “realists”. They will be the ones wondering what if and saying I should have when they are too old to live thier dreams. At least you spent your life working 9-5, for whatever that is worth…

      • Danny

        May 9, 2013 at 10:55 pm

        It’s selfish. These dreamers will end up with debt and families to pass it on to.

  12. tsunamijohn

    May 9, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    Question nothing, just drink the Kool-Aid.

  13. Minitourplayer

    May 9, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    So did the Flagship Tour pay for this article?

    • Zak Kozuchowski

      May 9, 2013 at 3:27 pm

      Minitourplayer,

      Rusty is a wonderful writer with strong journalism instincts and morals. For you to suggest otherwise shows that you haven’t paid much attention to his previous work, or the GolfWRX Featured Writers program as a whole.

      – Zak

      • t120

        May 9, 2013 at 8:34 pm

        That…is your opinion, Zak.

        I think it goes beyond sounding like an ad, but well-written? I wouldn’t go that far. It’s a few different “HARO” respondents he aggregated into an ambling, unclear rough draft of article. A good journalist doesn’t just take notes and format, he tells a captivating story.

        What did he do instead?
        1.) He spent a large portion of the article covering a mini-tour that hasn’t yet played a game.
        2.) Profiled a Canadian golfer that briefly played in Canada, not U.S. Mini tours.
        3.) Dropped a few names of past mini-tour players, yet didn’t expand on them.
        4.) Threw in some generalizations about past tour players that may or may not have existed, been scratch golfers, and/or quit for up to 5 various reasons unrelated to their game. Not a single name, or proof backing up that theory.

        All of that and I still have no idea what the Hooters, Pepsi or any other mini tour is really like. Maybe interview someone that’s actually been on one or more of the major tours and get a first hand account.

        As it stands, if you read this article the only thing you’ll get out of it is “Guys. Even if you’re very, very good, if you can’t afford a nice round number like $10,000/yr – you will be forced to sell shoes at Nordstrom.”

        • tim roncone

          May 10, 2013 at 1:13 am

          when you choose to find a negative in something you will always fail to see the good or in this case understand whats he’s trying to portray. i really hope you have better things to do with your life than bash other peoples work. have a nice day tool.

          • t120

            May 10, 2013 at 11:46 pm

            So…your response is somehow vindicated because I didn’t write an article? Who’s really the tool here? You didn’t bring anything to the table but a comment about a comment and in total frustration with your inability to make a point – a condescending remark.

      • Minitourplayer

        May 10, 2013 at 9:55 am

        Its basically a commercial for a brand new tour that no one has heard of

      • Dave

        May 10, 2013 at 10:09 am

        I disagree… I clicked on the article thinking it would in fact be a story about life as a mini-tour player and instead it was disjointed and unrelatable. It’s a shame.

        On another note, I find it hard to believe that there are only 156,000 HS seniors playing basketball each year, but who knows.

        • Shawn

          May 10, 2013 at 11:18 am

          I completely agree with you. Between the headline that feels kind of misleading, a lot of Typos (“There’s” as was mentioned above and a few other awkward choices) I don’t think this is a very good article at all.

  14. x-15a2

    May 9, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    The word “there’s” is a contraction for “there is”. That being the case, you’d never write “there is plenty of golfers…”, “there is thousands who don’t.” or “There is thousands of golfers playing on the mini tours every year.” In these cases, you would say “there are” instead of “there is”. For the record, “…there’s next to no risk to play a Flagship Golf Tour event” is the correct use of “there’s”.

    The contraction that you are looking for “there are” is “there’re” but besides being difficult to pronounce, “there’re” looks peculiar (and is incorrectly rejected by many spell-checkers). You are probably better off ditching a contraction for “there are”.

    • Joey5Picks

      May 15, 2013 at 3:47 pm

      That was a fun post to read. Thanks for the puncuation lesson.

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Opinion & Analysis

A conversation with a Drive, Chip and Putt national finalist

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I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend all of the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National since the inception of this amazing initiative. I’ve also been extremely lucky to have attended the Masters each of the past 10 years that I have been a PGA member. Each year, I’m still like a kid on Christmas morning when I walk through the gates at Augusta National, but nothing compares to my first trip in 2010. I was in absolute awe. For anyone that’s been, you can surely agree that Augusta National and the Masters Tournament is pure perfection.

The past few years at DCP finals, I couldn’t help but notice the looks of sheer excitement on the faces of the young competitors as well as their parents. That led me to reaching out to one of this year’s competitors, Briel Royce. A Central Florida native, Briel finished second overall in the 7-8-year-old girls division. She is a young lady that I know, albeit, not all too well, that competes in some of my youth golf organization’s Tour series in Florida. I spoke to Briel’s mom at Augusta and then reached out to the family after their return to the Orlando area to get a better idea of their DCP and Augusta National experience…

So how cool was it driving Down Magnolia Lane?

Briel: “Driving down Magnolia Lane was awesome.  Usually, you do not get to experience the scenic ride unless you are a tour player or a member. Everyone got extremely quiet upon entry. There were tons of security along our slow ride. Seeing the beautiful trees and the Masters Flag at Founder’s Circle in the distance was surreal. Having earned the right and opportunity to drive down this prestigious lane was breathtaking. I would love to do it again someday.”

What was the coolest part of your time at Drive, Chip and Putt at Augusta National?

Briel: “Everything was cool about the DCP. Not too often do you see people taking walks in the morning with green jackets on. We were not treated like kids. We were treated like tour players, like we were members at Augusta. The icing on the cake was when they took us to the practice green and we were putting alongside Zach Johnson and Charl Schwartzel. Everyone was confused when we first got there because we weren’t certain we should be putting on the same green around the pros. Again, we were treated like we were tour players. Where else would I be able to do this? Nowhere other than DCP at Augusta. One of my favorite reflections is having Bubba Watson watch us chip and congratulating each of us for our efforts. He did not need to do that. He took time out of practicing for a very important week in his career to support the DCP players. I think his actions show what the game of golf is about: the sportsmanship, the camaraderie, and support.”

How did you prepare for the finals?

Briel: “I prepared just like I did for every other tournament, practicing distance control, etc. But to be honest, you really can’t practice for this experience. The greens are like no other. The balls roll like they are on conveyor belts. I didn’t practice being in front of so many cameras, Bubba Watson, Condeleeza Rice as well as many other folks wearing green jackets. You need to practice playing under extreme pressure and scrutiny. When it is game time, you need to just do your thing and concentrate; have tunnel vision just like the ride down Magnolia Lane.”

What tour pros did you get to meet and talk to?

Briel: “WOW! I spoke to so many tour pros while I was there. I spoke to Keegan Bradley, Annika Sorenstam, Nancy Lopez, Zach Johnson, Mark O’Meara, Gary Player and Patrick Reed. I also met up with the U.S. Woman’s Amateur Champion, Jennifer Kupcho, and 14-year-old baller Alexa Pano. I’m still in awe!”

 

How fast were those greens?

Briel: “Those greens were lightning quick. The balls rolled like they were on a conveyor belt; you didn’t know when to expect them to stop. Had I practiced these speeds a little more, I would have putted the 30-foot like a 15-foot and the 15-foot like a 6-foot putt.”

I also wanted to ask Briel’s parents a few questions in order to get a better idea from the standpoint of the mom and dad, on what an increasable experience this must have been.

So how cool was it driving up Magnolia Lane for you guys?

Mom and Dad: “Going down Magnolia Lane was a dream come true and we wouldn’t have EVER been able to do it without Briel’s accomplishment. Driving down was so peaceful; the way the trees are shaped like a tunnel and at the end of that tunnel, you see the Masters Flag and Founder’s Circle. Just thinking about all the legends, presidents, influential people driving down that road and we were doing the same thing was extraordinary. We appreciated how slow the driver took to get us down the lane for us to take it all in. A lot of tears. It was heavenly.”

What was the coolest part during your time at Drive, Chip and Putt and Augusta National?

Mom and Dad“The coolest part was seeing 9-year-old Briel compete at Augusta National! Seeing the whole set up and everything that goes into making this event what it is, we have no words. They made these kids feel like they were royalty. We are so truly blessed, thankful, and grateful for everything that was provided to Briel to make this a truly awesome experience. We don’t want to share too much as it needs to be a surprise to anyone else that’s reading this that may make it there.”

How impactful do you feel this initiative is to golf in general?

Mom and Dad: “You can’t possibly make any bigger impact on golf than to let golf’s future attend the best golf course and the coolest event, Drive, Chip and Putt at none other Augusta National during Masters week. The day after the event, we had a handful of people walk up to Briel to tell her that she was an inspiration to their older daughters who now want to play golf. They even requested a picture with Briel; how cool! This initiative is definately, without question, growing the game.”

It goes without saying that you were incredibly proud of your daughter but what may have surprised you most on how she handled this awesome experience?

Mom and Dad: “We are so incredibly proud of Briel! She handled this challenging and overwhelming experience very well for only being 9 years old. She was cool, calm and collected the whole time. The atmosphere at Drive, Chip and Putt can chew you up if you let it, but she didn’t let all of the distractions get to her, she embraced them.  Out of all the competitions she participated in to earn her invitation to Augusta, we truly feel she treated this whole experience like she was not at a competition but a birthday party where she was having a blast. She made many new golf friends and we met amazing golf families we anticipate spending more time with in the future. You don’t get to go to many parties where Bubba Watson is hanging out with you like he’s your best friend.”

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Podcasts

The 19th Hole (Ep 76): Rees Jones on how Tiger won at Augusta and will win at Bethpage!

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The Open Doctor Rees Jones talks with host Michael Williams about the key holes that shaped Tiger’s win in Augusta and his chances for victory at Bethpage Black in the PGA Championship. Also features John Farrell of Sea Pines Resort (host of this week’s RBC Heritage Classic) and Ed Brown of Clear Sports.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

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Opinion & Analysis

Municipal golf matters. Here’s why

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With another golf season upon us, it’s the time for many to consider the options for how and where they plan to play their golf this season. A good number of golfers would have already started paying dues towards their club memberships, some are waiting to buy a pack of prepaid passes for their local course, and like many, I’m eagerly awaiting the opening of my local municipal golf course — my muni.

Growing up, my friends and I were what you would call course rats: kids who would be there when the sun came up and there as the sun went down. Spending hours on the range often picking our own balls to avoid paying for another bucket — since that meant an extra burger after practice. It was the best “babysitter” our parents could have asked for — endless hours spent outside day after day and for the low price of just $350 for the season — plus about $5 a day for that burger I was talking about. We all ended up being pretty decent players without much instruction, based on the simple truth that we were given the opportunity to play as much as we wanted, and we were always trying to beat each other — we learned to play golf, not “golf swing.”

Living outside of the city in a smaller town, this was a “mom and pop” course that is still around today and busy, but I often wonder now as an adult if other kids that loved golf got to share in the same experience. Looking back, I don’t think I could have gotten a better education in being polite, responsible, honest, and confident — I guess this was The First Tee before The First Tee. The memories from those summers are some of the fondest I have from growing up, and with so many young families living in cities, along with the high cost of organized sports, and the closing of golf courses, municipal golf is one of the last places where this type of opportunity is available to juniors and adults alike at an affordable price.

Municipal golf has been around for a LONG time, and in this day and age it has, for some cities, become a lightning rod for budget cuts along with concerns about tax dollars being spent to fund an “elite” sport. The issue I have is cities spend a huge amount of money to help subsidize other sports fields and recreation facilities including swimming pools, ice ricks, soccer and baseball fields yet none of these sports have the “elite” tag attached to them like golf — with a young family I utilize most of these facilities too. This could end up sounding like a blasphemous statement from a Canadian, but hockey, for example, has become a much more elite and expensive sport as far as access and barrier to entry, including equipment, yet a lot of (non-hockey playing) people would chain themselves to an arena to prevent it from closing its doors.

I’m not here to argue the merits of a city budget, but I am fully aware of the perception many people have about golf. Recently, speaking to one of the golf professionals at a city-owned course near me, he told me they are one of the few city recreational facilities that actually turns a profit thanks to high traffic the course sees, along with efficient use of the clubhouse facilities for events during the season, and in the offseason.

What I love about “muni” golf is that it really is the course for the people. St Andrews in Scotland, for example, is by definition a “muni” public golf course. The course and the “R & A Club” are separate entities, and if you can show a handicap card (and can get a tee time), you can play one of the many courses located in the town.

The munis I play the most because of proximity are Kings Forest Golf Course and Chedoke Civic Golf Courses in the city of Hamilton. The Chedoke courses are in no way a “Championship Test” heck, the shorter Martin Course tops out at just over a whooping 5,700 yards ( that’s a VERY generous number based of the tees actually used), but like St. Andrews it’s home to more than just golfers. Early morning and late afternoon you will find people strolling the paths, walking their dogs and just enjoying the green space — something that as cities continue to grow will be needed even more. It’s not closed on Sundays and doesn’t become a park like St Andrews, but even during winter you will still find dog walkers, cross country skiers, and people sledding down hills. That seems pretty multipurpose if you ask me.

As much as I pick on, and use my local Chedoke as my example, I do it out of love, like a little brother. The Martin course is a Stanley Thompson design with a bunch of very cool holes build into the Niagara Escarpment. It’s a ton of fun to play.

What makes muni golf accessible for so many players from juniors to seniors and everyone in between is the affordability. Sure the conditions might leave something to be desired on a day-to-day basis, but it’s understandable when you have a course staff of 5-6 versus more than a dozen like at high-end facilities. At the end of the day, it’s 18 tees with 18 greens and the company you are with that makes a round of golf, not the height of the fairways or rough or the occasional bunker in need of a good raking.

Locally, a junior membership is right around $500 bucks and that gets you unlimited golf with no tee time restrictions. It’s a pretty nice deal if you ask me. What makes golf different from other individual activities and team sports (something I would like to note I was very active in as a younger person) is that it can be played at any time, and you can easily be pair up with three other random people to just play the game together regardless of gender, age, or skill. It’s often those rounds that are the most fun. No scheduled practice and “game days” like other sports. That means seven days a week access, not just a few hours here and there like many other organized sports.

If we look at the bigger picture and data from the National Golf Foundation (2017), there are just over 11,000 PUBLIC golf facilities in the United States. The average price paid for an 18 hole round of golf was only $34 at these public facilities, which sounds to me like a very reasonable cost. If the “average” golfer plays 10 times a year, that’s only $340 (yeah, I know I’m good at math) and with the buyers’ market in the used equipment space, even if you need a full set up of clubs to get started it can easily be had for less than $400, and you can have those clubs for a long time. A true recreational player will have just as much fun with a 580XD, and 3-PW set of Ping Eye 2s, as they would with a shiny new set of clubs.

Whats even more interesting is there are recent examples of municipal/small, privately-owned golf courses making big comebacks thanks to passionate individuals and cities willing to understand the value a course really has.

The best two are Goat Hill Park and the Winter Park 9 – I’ll let Andy Johnson from The Fried Egg give you the rundown: The Fried Egg Profiles Winter Park. Two courses on opposite sides of the country achieving fantastic results and offering extremely affordably priced fun golf to boot. It’s the sense of community that these places created that make them beacons in the landscape. I may be an outlier but I know that if given the opportunity to volunteer at my course for a few hours once a week to help fix a bunker, clean up fallen branches, or just help with general course maintenance in exchange for the ability to golf I would be first to sign up.

It’s a program like this that could also work for juniors (within a reasonable age obviously) to not only help grant more access to golf but teach about agronomy and respect for the course itself. I can only imagine that this type of “education” and team environment would help create more life-long golfers. (Please remember this would be 100 percent voluntary and open to both kids and adults alike. I’m not asking or suggesting free hard labour.) Some retirees already do something like this as course marshals.

At this point, I think it’s important to state that I am NOT anti-country club and private course; I love private courses too! Conditions are top notch, the architecture is in most cases primo, which also has a lot to do with the land they were put on when they were founded (especially in North America) rounds are played quickly, perfect practice facilities, I could go on and on. I have a lot of friends that are members at clubs, and like many people in the industry I know a lot of pros that are happy to grant the occasional access on slower days to “friends in the industry.” I love playing golf one way or the other, but at heart I’m a muni kid that has a huge amount of respect for the game and both sides of the fence, regardless of where someone started in the game, or where you choose to play now, we’re all playing golf, and that’s the most important thing.

Sure the pros on T.V. play high-end often expensive and private courses, which is great for entertainment and sponsorships, but municipal golf where you are going to find the largest percentage of golfers who are really the heart and soul of the game. If we really want to #GrowTheGame (a phrase used way too often) and maintain some semblance of accessibility for the next generation of “muni kids” having municipal golf is a critical part of that.

Ask your local course manager or pro how you can help, attend city council meetings. I know I have many times to listen to arguments from both sides and to participate in the discussion. Golf as a whole will be better off for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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19th Hole

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