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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On Spec: Winners’ WITBs and my week in golf
The original 0311
In the first episode of “The Disruptors,” GolfWRX’s new video series with PXG, Johnny Wunder sits down with company founder Bob Parsons for an in-depth talk about Parsons’ background and got into the golf equipment business.
The Bob I know
I’ll start by saying this: Bob Parsons has a stigma attached to him. With every move he makes or idea he pushes, many people think: Rich guy. No perspective. Who does he think he is?
I also need to say this (whether you believe it or not): This is not a puff piece. This is my honest perspective as I have experienced. Until 30 days ago, I didn’t have one PXG club in my bag and have never been given favor from PXG to “make them look good.”
OK, that’s out of the way, so you know what isn’t the motivation here. The motivation is to describe my relationship with Bob, so the golf community knows exactly who he is, why he is so important, and why we don’t want him to ever go away.
I first met Bob Parsons on December 11th, 2007 on the set of the first commercial I ever booked as an actor. It was for GoDaddy.com, and it was a Super Bowl ad that was later banned and became a “cult classic” for years to come. On the set of that commercial, Bob showed up before principal photography began and walked up to every person on that set (100 people) and personally introduced himself and thanked them for the hard work. When I met and I told him my name, he said in a way only Bob can, “Johnny Wunder!? I’ll never forget that name, that’s a no brainer.”
Fast forward to March of 2018 and PXG’s initial launch of the GEN2 irons. Before our interview was set up, I was reintroduced to him, and he said “Johnny Wunder!? THE Johnny Wunder? I know that name. We have met. I never forget a name.” I explained how we met and he started to laugh, “I may forget a face, Johnny, but I’d never forget a name like that.”
Since then, I have interviewed Bob four times and been his guest during product launches. NOBODY does hospitality like Bob. NOBODY. You are inside the bubble, and you are well taken care of but also respected to the utmost degree. He understands the job we in the media have and will give you everything he can to make the experience worthwhile. Yes, Bob has a larger-than-life on-camera persona. It’s big, funny, gregarious, and to some, intimidating. Bob off camera is a bit of a different thing. He’s a thoughtful, quiet man that will ask about your kids far before he asks what you think about his products.
I recall a morning he called me personally to ask me a question, it was a Saturday, if memory serves, and when I picked up the phone and realized it was him, I had to kind of laugh. Not at him but at his first few comments
- Apologized for interrupting my family’s Saturday morning
- Asked how my family was doing and if the kids were fans of golf
- Asked how I was doing beyond work and what I was planning for the rest of the year
These were real questions from a man that REALLY cares. Care is the key word here. I’ll get to that in a moment. After the call was done, he thanked me and wanted to make sure I told my wife that he apologized for stealing me away (if only for a few minutes) from my family on a Saturday morning.
This is not Bob selling me. This is Bob.
The message here is that Bob cares, immensely, about improving the conditions of those he can. Yes his clubs are expensive. Get past that. Yes he has a ton of cash. Get past that. Yes his persona is BIG. Get past that. He spun the industry on its head by introducing and selling clubs that were “too expensive.” “He will never make it” was something I hear a lot. Well that idea is now put to bed as PXG, leading with its strong chin, made it OK to spend a lot of money on golf clubs. He paved the way for bespoke companies like Artisan, Tyson Lamb, National Custom Works to charge premium prices for custom gear. I think any gearhead on GolfWRX could find a way to be thankful for that one…just for the Instagram pictures alone.
The interview accompanying this article will give you just a glimpse as to who Bob really is. He came from nothing. He built this. He dug it outta the dirt. He is the American Dream walking and talking. No one gave him anything. In this day and age, I honor that narrative. I respect the hell out of it, and I want my kids to see men and woman like this.
It’s the real “meat on the table” that Bob has. You can’t learn this in school, you have to learn it by trying and failing A LOT. PXG is something he built. He didn’t hire smart people to do his bidding, he hired smart people to learn from and get in the mud with. PXG clubs are the product of that collaboration. PXG clubs are not Bob, but they are a symbol of how much this guy cares about doing things differently. He’s a disruptor. He cares. That’s all that matters.
I hope you see what I see. Enjoy the interview.
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