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.
The Gear Dive: Episode 100
In this 100th episode of The Gear dive, Johnny looks back at his top 5 favorite moments and discusses what’s to come in the equipment industry as we come out of the lockdown haze.
The Wedge Guy: 3 keys to handling pressure
Whether you play competitively or not, “pressure” is a big part of this game. Even if we are out for an evening practice nine, when we get over any shot, from drive to putt, we are putting “pressure” on ourselves to perform to our best capability.
So just what is pressure? My dad used to tell us the story about a guy who wanted to learn how to walk the tightrope. He strung a rope across his yard about a foot off the ground and started practicing—first just balancing, then walking, skipping—he got where he “owned” that tightrope. So, he decided he was ready for the big top, to join the circus. The circus manager says, “Well, climb up there and show me what you’ve got.” When he got to the top and looked down about thirty feet, he couldn’t even get off the platform.
Pressure affects all of differently, but it does affect all of us. How can we totally jack a two-foot putt sometimes? How can we chunk a chip shot? We don’t do that on the practice tee! But then, how can tour pros hit some of the gosh-awful shots we see them hit coming down the stretch? No one is immune.
So, I want to share my three keys to handling pressure. I’d like for all of you to chime in with your own personal keys that you use with success.
Here are mine:
- Recall success! The first thing that happens in pressure situations is that fear sets in. You may find yourself thinking of that last short putt you missed, or that chip you chunked, or bunker shot you skulled. In Dr. David Cook’s book/movie “Seven Days In Utopia”, the mentor tells his student, “See it. Feel it. Trust it.” See the shot you have and recall the dozens or hundreds of ways you’ve successfully executed it before. Take a few practice swings and feel the swing that will produce that vision. Then trust your skill that you KNOW you have and just execute.
- Get S-L-O-W. It’s a natural tendency to get quick when we are under pressure. As you begin to approach the shot, slow down a bit. If you are riding in a cart and approaching the green, pause for a count before you jump out of the cart. Take a breath before you pull the clubs from the bag. Walk a little more slowly over to your ball, which gives you time to think those successful thoughts we just talked about. Make your practice swings or strokes a little slower, more deliberately. And feel the end of your backswing. The quickness killer is not finishing the swing, whether it’s a full iron shot, a short chip or pitch, or even a putt. FEEL the end of the backswing to neutralize quickness.
- Lighten up! A nice relaxed grip is essential to a good golf shot of any kind, but pressure affects that first, most of the time. When you are feeling a little “amped up”, focus on your grip pressure and R-E-L-A-X. Your body will not let you hold a club too softly, but pressure sure can make you put the death grip on the club. And it is hard to swing too quickly when you have a nice soft grip on the club.
So, those are my “three keys” to handling pressure. Try them the next time you find yourself a little nervous, whether it’s for the club championship, or just beating your buddies out of a few bucks.
And let us know your keys to handling pressure, too!
Coming out of the haze: What to expect from the OEMs in the second half of 2020
As we slowly come out of the lockdown haze, it’s going to be interesting to see which OEMs are primed to come out swinging. From where I sit, there are a few companies that either kept the foot on the pedal or found new ways to interact with the masses. I have been tracking the major companies for different reasons, and I am optimistic on most fronts. Now, it needs to be said that everyone has been keeping the respective momentum going in their own ways—this has been a challenge for everyone, so this analysis is simply a commentary on what may come in the second half of the year.
Many good folks were either furloughed or laid off during this lockdown—that’s where we all lost. It needs to be acknowledged that we are talking about golf here, but the underlying reality of this is still devastating. I so look forward to getting into the trenches with these folks again either back where they were or at new companies.
Big giant club company or big giant marketing machine…it doesn’t matter what you label them as. TaylorMade Golf, in my opinion, turned the heartbreak of stalling one of the biggest first quarters in company history into an opportunity to start talking…and teaching. With the help of the tour team and TM athletes, TaylorMade focused hard on talking to us all during the lockdown. With multiple initiatives through social media, the Driving Relief event, and the tour staff engaging way more than usual. I believe TM created a runway to start moving quickly once stores and pro shops open up again.
Let’s face it, with the social media presence, the most robust tour staff maybe ever, and the driver everyone seems to have reserved for the top big stick of 2020, what’s not to be confident about? On the flip side, a company that big could have really taken it on the chin hard, but how they handled the lockdown—from my chair—was fun to watch and will ultimately ensure a quick restart. There is something to be said about having guys like Trottie, Adrian, and Hause in the fold informing and keeping things fun.
Rumor has it new irons are dropping in the fall/winter, which could spell two awesome bookends to a bittersweet 2020.
PXG leaned in
Why online sales for all OEMs spiked is no mystery. Boredom, desire, and a credit card are keys to any great online buying experience, but PXG made certain that if you were not a buyer previously, you may be now.
The price tag has always been a key topic with Bob Parsons’ Scottsdale-based company. It’s no secret that the clubs aren’t cheap, but during this lockdown, they did multiple strategic initiatives to not only crank up direct-to-consumer buying but also expand the PXG conversation into different areas, namely fashion.
Price cuts across the board started early and, rumor has it, enabled PXG to achieve sales numbers unlike any other period in the company’s short history. Yes, cutting prices helps unit sales, but in the case of PXG, it brought in the club customer that ordinarily shied away from PXG for financial reasons and ultimately made them buyers. That’s where PXG seems to shine, once they finally get you in, they are very effective at keeping you in the family. Mercedes-Benz AMG is like that: once you have had a taste of the Kool-Aid, it’s hard to go back to Hawaiian Punch.
In addition to the aggressive price-cutting, PXG fashion, spearheaded by President Renee Parsons, launched a new collection that is designed and manufactured by PXG. Fashion in times like these is always a risk from a financial standpoint, but this launch has been on the calendar since the BOY and the current lockdown did not disrupt that. It speaks to the confidence that Bob and Renee have in what they are doing. Now, is it a guarantee that PXG garments will fly off the shelves? No. but that’s not the point, it’s the fact that this current climate didn’t scare them into pivoting or holding off.
Point to this pick is PXG looks healthy coming out of this and it was possible to believe that perhaps this would have taken a toll on the custom fit brand. There is even a commercial produced during lockdown to attract even more club builders to the fold. Not normal behavior in times like these, but is anything that PXG does normal? No, and that’s what makes them fun to talk about.
The company also released its Essential Facemask with 50 percent of proceeds going to Team Rubicon.
Ping was quiet…but don’t be fooled
Yes, they did some rare social media engagements with Kenton Oates and the tour staff, which were fantastic. But the real magic here was the quiet way in which Ping slipped into 2020 and the mystery they have in hand and what’s to come next.
There hasn’t been really any new Ping product in a good while, and I anticipate a big winter for the Solheim crew. Sometimes, silence is golden and from what I can gather, what Ping has coming in irons and woods will be yet again a launch that gets people talking.
Ping from a business standpoint is a company that gets one percent better every year. Never any dramatic shifts in strategy or product. It’s always good, it’s always high-performance, and it’s always in the “best of” category across the board.
Watch out for them over the next six to nine months…a storm is brewing. A good one.
Cobra introduced the “Rickie iron”
Compared to 2019 and the runaway success that was the F9 driver, Cobra Golf seemed to cruise along in the first quarter of 2020. The SpeedZone metal wood line was an improvement tech-wise from the F9 but seemed to get lost in the driver launch shuffle with an earlier release—and frankly everyone in the industry took a back seat to TaylorMade’s SIM.
It’s not placing one stick over the other actually, I have been very vocal about my affections for both, it’s just some years, the story around a club can generate excitement, and if the club is exceptional, boom. Cobra was that cool kid in 2019.
What Cobra decided to do in the downtime is slowly tease and taunt with a “Rickie Fowler” iron. Players blades aren’t typically the driving element of any business model, but what Cobra did was introduce to a beautiful yet completely authentic forging that will not only get the gear heads going nuts but also entice the better players to start looking at Cobra as a serious better players iron company. No small feat.
Point is, Cobra has generated buzz. It helped that Rickie’s performance at Seminole was just short of a precision clinic. Beyond the Rev 33, its rumored Cobra has a new players CB coming and some MIM wedges.
It should be an exciting last half for the Cobra crew.
The Titleist train chugged on
I mean, what else is there to say about Titleist? They are as American as apple pie, have a stranglehold on multiple tour and retail categories, and one of the best front offices in golf. The company is a well-oiled machine.
So what do I expect from them in the last half? Well pretty much what I would expect on any other year, solid player-driven equipment. A metal wood launch is coming, the SM8 was a huge hit in stores and on tour, and the ball portion is the biggest 800-pound gorilla in golf.
It was also nice to see a little more social media interaction beyond the traditional. Aaron Dill has been very active on the social media front and a good portion of the tour staff, namely Poulter, JT, and Homa were proactive in engagement. Might seem trivial to some, but specifically, Titleist and Ping are not super active in the organic interaction game, so it was nice to see both companies dive into the fold.
Cleveland/Srixon should have a lot to look forward to
Let’s be honest here, 2019 was a quiet year overall for Srixon. Shane Lowry won The Open, but in the golf mainstream it was a leap year for them in regards to any launches. The anticipation from me personally of what is to come is quite strong. I adore the irons. I have yet to meet one I didn’t love, and fitters across the country will speak to that in sales. The Srixon iron line has become a popular yet-sort-of-cult-classic among fitters and gearheads and rightly so. They are phenomenal.
The recently teased picture of the new driver on the USGA site more or less teased us of what is to come for the overall line. New Cleveland wedges are coming shortly and the golf ball has always been a solid component to the Huntington Beach company.
As much as anyone in the market, I believe Srixon could finish the year with some serious momentum going into 2021. The irons and ball have always been firestarters. My only wish for them, selfishly, is a more aggressive tour strategy in regards to landing one of the perennial top 10. It seems like a dumb thought, but I have always felt Cleveland/Srixon was always a serious hitter that at times seems to get lost in the conversation. Having a big gun on staff or a couple of them will remedy that quickly.
Callaway has an eye on big things for the golf ball
Callaway, a company that seems to do it all well, was actually a bit quiet since the lockdown started. After a solid release of the Mavrik line and some momentum in the golf ball area, I’m sure this lockdown probably felt like a kick to the shin.
However, this company is shifting in a good way. The idea that they were a golf club company that happened to make golf balls is slowly turning into a company with multiple major components that stand alone. TaylorMade is on a similar shift, and honestly it’s very interesting to watch. Do I think that anyone will ever catch Titleist in the ball category? No, I don’t. All of these mentioned golf balls are ridiculously good, but 75 years of trust and loyalty are hard to compete with. But that’s not the point, Callaway is a monster company that takes the golf ball conversation very seriously, and I believe this will serve them very well coming out of this craziness and help the momentum going into 2021.
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