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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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19th Hole

Vincenzi’s 2024 Charles Schwab Challenge betting preview: Tony Finau ready to get back inside winner’s circle

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After an action-packed week at the PGA Championship, the PGA Tour heads back to Texas to play the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth.

Colonial Country Club is a 7,209-yard par-70 and features Bentgrass greens. The difficulty of the event this week will be influenced by course setup and/or wind. The last four seasons have all produced winners with scores between -8 and -14, with the two most recent playing extremely difficult. Last year, Emiliano Grillo won in a playoff against Adam Schenk at -8, and in 2022, Sam Burns edged out Scottie Scheffler in a playoff at -9.

After last season’s event, the course was renovated by Gil Hanse. I expect the course to stay true to what the original design intended, but will improve in some areas that needed updating. Jordan Spieth, who is one of the most consistent players at Colonial, told Golfweek his thoughts on the changes.

“I always thought courses like this, Hilton Head, these classic courses that stand the test of time, it’s like what are you going to do to these places? I think that’s kind of everyone’s first response,” Spieth said. “Then I saw them, and I was like, wow, this looks really, really cool. It looks like it maintains the character of what Colonial is while creating some excitement on some holes that maybe could use a little bit of adjusting.”

The Charles Schwab Challenge will play host to 136 golfers this week, and the field is relatively strong despite it being the week after a major championship.

Some notable golfers in the field include Scottie Scheffler, Max Homa, Tony Finau, Sungjae Im, Collin Morikawa, Min Woo Lee, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth and Akshay Bhatia. 

Past Winners at Charles Schwab Challenge

  • 2023: Emiliano Grillo (-8)
  • 2022: Sam Burns (-9)
  • 2021: Jason Kokrak (-14)
  • 2020: Daniel Berger (-15)
  • 2019: Kevin Na (-13)
  • 2018: Justin Rose (-20)
  • 2017: Kevin Kisner (-10)
  • 2016: Jordan Spieth (-17)

Key Stats For Colonial Country Club

Let’s take a look at five key metrics for Colonial Country Club to determine which golfers boast top marks in each category over their last 24 rounds.

1. Strokes Gained: Approach

Approach will be a major factor this week. It grades out as the most important statistic historically in events played at Colonial Country Club, and that should be the case once again this week.

Approach Over Past 24 Rounds

  1. Scottie Scheffler (+1.09)
  2. Ryan Moore (1.00)
  3. Tom Hoge (+0.96)
  4. Akshay Bhatia (+0.85)
  5. Greyson Sigg (+0.83)

2. Strokes Gained: Off The Tee

Both distance and accuracy will be important this week. Historically, shorter hitters who find the fairway have thrived at Colonial, but over the last few years we’ve seen a lot of the players in the field use big drives to eliminate the challenge of doglegs and fairway bunkers.

The rough can be thick and penal, so finding the fairway will remain important.

Strokes Gained: Off the Tee Over Past 24 Rounds

  1. Scottie Scheffler (+1.11)
  2. Keith Mitchell (+0.90)
  3. Kevin Yu (+0.87)
  4. Alejandro Tosti (+0.81)
  5. Min Woo Lee (+0.80)

3. Strokes Gained: Total in Texas

Players who play well in the state of Texas tend to play well in multiple events during the Texas swing. 

Strokes Gained: Total in Texas over past 36 rounds

  1. Jordan Spieth (+2.16)
  2. Scottie Scheffler (+1.97)
  3. Tony Finau (+1.91)
  4. Akshay Bhatia (+1.68)
  5. Justin Rose (+1.62)

4. Course History

Course history seems to be much more important at Colonial Country Club than most other courses. The same players tend to pop up on leaderboards here year after year.

Course History per round Over Past 24 Rounds:

  1. Jordan Spieth (+2.31)
  2. Justin Rose (+1.70)
  3. Harris English (+1.66)
  4. Webb Simpson (+1.54)
  5. Collin Morikawa (+1.47)

5. Strokes Gained: Putting (Bentgrass)

The Bentgrass greens at Colonial are in immaculate condition, and putters who roll it pure are at an advantage. Historically, great putters have thrived at Colonial.

Strokes Gained: Putting (Bentgrass) Over Past 24 Rounds:

  1. Denny McCarthy (+1.08)
  2. Justin Rose (+0.93)
  3. J.T. Poston (+0.87)
  4. Maverick McNealy (+0.85)
  5. Andrew Putnam (+0.74)

Charles Schwab Challenge Model Rankings

Below, I’ve compiled overall model rankings using a combination of the five key statistical categories previously discussed — SG: Approach (27%), SG: OTT (25%), Strokes Gained: Total in Texas (14%), Course History (17%) and SG: Putting Bentgrass (17%).

  1. Scottie Scheffler
  2. Chris Kirk
  3. Tony Finau
  4. Billy Horschel
  5. Daniel Berger
  6. Maverick McNealy
  7. Adam Schenk
  8. Collin Morikawa
  9. Austin Eckroat
  10. Sepp Straka

2024 Charles Schwab Challenge Picks

Tony Finau +3300 (FanDuel)

Tony Finau hit the ball incredibly well at last week’s PGA Championship. He led the field in Strokes Gained: Approach, gaining 9.3 strokes in the category, which was his second-best performance on approach this season (Farmers T6). Finau’s tie for 18th at Valhalla is ideal considering the fact that he played very well but didn’t have the mental and emotional strain of hitting shots deep into contention in a major championship. He should be sharp and ready to go for this week’s event.

Finau has been phenomenal in the state of Texas. He ranks third in Strokes Gained: Total in the Lone Star state in his past 36 rounds and just recently put up a T2 finish at the Texas Children’s Houston Open last month. He also has success at Colonial. He finished 2nd at the course in 2019 and T4 at the course in 2022. He missed the cut last year, however, that seems to be an aberration as he hasn’t finished worse than 34th in his seven other trips to Fort Worth.

Finau has gained strokes off the tee in 10 of his 13 starts this season, and his ability to hit the ball long and straight should give him an advantage this week at Colonial. He’s also gained strokes on approach in 11 of his 13 starts this year. His tee to green excellence should work wonders this week, as Colonial is a challenging test. The concern, as usual, for Tony, is the putter. He’s in the midst of the worst putting season of his career, but with a target score in the -8 to -13 range this week, he should be able to get away with a few mistakes on the greens.

Finau is one of the most talented players in the field and I believe he can put it all together this week in Texas to get his first win since last year’s Mexico Open.

Sungjae Im +5000 (BetRivers)

Sungjae Im is really starting to play some good golf of late, despite his missed cut at last week’s PGA Chmapionship. Im missed the cut on the number, which may be a blessing in disguise that allows him to rest and also keeps the price reasonable on him this week. The missed cut was due to some woeful putting, which is atypical for Sungjae. He gained strokes slightly both off the tee and on approach, therefore I’m not concerned with the performance.

Prior to his trip to Valhalla, Sungjae was beginning to show why he has been such a good player over the course of his career. He finished T12 at Heritage and then won an event in Korea. He followed that up with a T4 at Quail Hollow in a “Signature Event”, which was his best performance on the PGA Tour this season. At the Wells Fargo, the South Korean was 20th in Strokes Gained: Ball Striking and showed his skill around and on the greens.

Sungjae has had some success at Colonial. He’s finished T10 and T15 with two missed cuts scattered in between over the past four seasons. When he is in form, which I believe he now is, the course suits him well.

Im hasn’t won since 2021, which is an underachievement given how talented I believe he is. That can change this week with a win at Colonial.

Christiaan Bezuidenhout +5000 (FanDuel)

I absolutely love this spot for Christiaan Bezuidenhout. The South African is having a fantastic season and this is a course that should suit his strengths.

Prior the PGA Championship, Bez hadn’t finished worse than 28th in six consecutive starts. He’s not the type of player who can get to -20 in a “birdie fest” but can grind in a tougher event. He is a terrific player in the wind and putts extremely well on Bentgrass greens. Bezuidenhout has also had success both in Texas and at Colonial. He ranks 16th in Strokes Gained: Total at the course and 10th in Strokes Gained: Total in Texas over his past 36 rounds.

Part of what has made Bezuidenhout play so well this year is his increase in ball speed, which has been the recipe for success for plenty of players, including the winner of last week’s PGA Championship, Xander Schauffele. Bezuidenhout’s coach shared his ball speed gains on Instagram a few weeks back.

https://www.instagram.com/p/C6FCvK3S97A/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

Now at close to 170mph ball speed, that isn’t enough to compete at the monstrous major championship courses in my opinion, however it’s plenty to contend at Colonial.

Bezuidenhout has been one of the most consistent performers on the PGA Tour this season and a win would put an exclamation point on what’s been his best year on Tour to date.

Brendon Todd +12500 (BetRivers)

Brendon Todd is the type of player that’s hit or miss, but usually shows up on the courses he has a strong history on and plays well. Todd finished T8 at Colonial in 2021 and 3rd in 2022. He’s also flashed some Texas form this year as he finished T5 at the Valero Texas Open in April.

Todd doesn’t contend all that often, but when he does, he’s shown in the past that he has the capability to win a golf tournament. He has three PGA Tour wins including a win in Texas back in 2014 (TPC Four Seasons).

Todd is a player who can rise to the top if some of the elite players aren’t in contention after a grueling PGA Championship.

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19th Hole

Vincenzi’s 2024 PGA Championship betting preview: Rising star ready to join the immortals at Valhalla

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The second major of the 2024 season is upon us as the world’s best players will tee it up this week at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky to compete for the Wanamaker Trophy.

The last time we saw Valhalla host a major championship, Rory McIlroy fended off Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson, Rickie Fowler and the creeping darkness that was descending upon the golf course. The Northern Irishman had the golf world in the palm of his hand, joining only Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as players who’d won four major championships by the time they were 25 years old. 

Valhalla is named after the great hall described in Norse mythology where the souls of Vikings feasted and celebrated with the Gods. The course is a Jack Nicklaus-design that has ranked among Golf Digest’s “America’s 100 Greatest Courses” for three decades. 

Valhalla Golf Club is a par-71 measuring 7,542 yards with Zoysia fairways and Bentgrass greens. The course has rolling hills and dangerous streams scattered throughout and the signature 13th hole is picturesque with limestone and unique bunkering protecting the green. The 2024 PGA Championship will mark the fourth time Valhalla has hosted the event. 

The field this week will consist of 156 players, including 16 PGA Champions and 33 Major Champions. 

Past Winners of the PGA Championship

  • 2023: Brooks Koepka (-9) Oak Hill
  • 2022: Justin Thomas (-5) Southern Hills
  • 2021: Phil Mickelson (-6) Kiawah Island
  • 2020: Collin Morikawa (-13) TPC Harding Park
  • 2019: Brooks Koepka (-8) Bethpage Black
  • 2018: Brooks Koepka (-16) Bellerive
  • 2017: Justin Thomas (-8) Quail Hollow
  • 2016: Jimmy Walker (-14) Baltusrol
  • 2015: Jason Day (-20) Whistling Straits
  • 2014: Rory McIlroy (-16) Valhalla

In this article and going forward, I’ll be using the Rabbit Hole by Betsperts Golf data engine to develop my custom model. If you want to build your own model or check out all of the detailed stats, you can sign up using promo code: MATTVIN for 25% off any subscription package (yearly is best value).

Key Stats For Valhalla

Let’s take a look at five key metrics for Oak Hill to determine which golfers boast top marks in each category over their past 24 rounds.

1. Strokes Gained: Approach

Valhalla will play as a true all-around test of golf for the world’s best. Of course, it will take strong approach play to win a major championship.

Strokes Gained: Approach Over Past 24 Rounds

  1. Shane Lowry (+1.25)
  2. Scottie Scheffler (+1.09)
  3. Jordan Smith (+1.05)
  4. Tom Hoge (+.96)
  5. Corey Conners (+.94)

2. Strokes Gained: Off the Tee

Valhalla will play long and the rough will be penal. Players who are incredibly short off the tee and/or have a hard time hitting fairways will be all but eliminated from contention this week at the PGA Championship. 

Strokes Gained: Off the Tee Over Past 24 Rounds:

  1. Bryson DeChambeau (+1.47)
  2. Scottie Scheffler (+1.11)
  3. Keith Mitchell (+.90)
  4. Alejandro Tosti (+.89)
  5. Ludvig Aberg (+.82)

Strokes Gained: Total on Nickalus Designs

Valhalla is a classic Nicklaus Design. Players who play well at Nicklaus designs should have an advantage coming into this major championship. 

Strokes Gained: Total on Nicklaus Designs over past 36 rounds:

  1. Jon Rahm (+2.56)
  2. Scottie Scheffler (+2.48)
  3. Patrick Cantlay (+2.35)
  4. Collin Morikawa (+1.79)
  5. Shane Lowry (+1.57)

Strokes Gained: Tee to Green on Very Long Courses

Valhalla is going to play extremely long this week. Players who have had success playing very long golf courses should be better equipped to handle the conditions of this major championship.

Strokes Gained: Total on Very Long Courses Over Past 24 Rounds: 

  1. Scottie Scheffler (+2.44)
  2. Rory McIlroy (+2.24)
  3. Will Zalatoris (+1.78)
  4. Viktor Hovland (+1.69)
  5. Xander Schauffele (+1.60)

Strokes Gained: Total in Major Championships

One factor that tends to play a large role in deciding major championships is which players have played well in previous majors leading up to the event. 

Strokes Gained: Total in Major Championships over past 20 rounds:

  1. Scottie Scheffler (+3.14)
  2. Will Zalatoris (+2.64)
  3. Rory McIlroy (+2.49)
  4. Xander Schauffele (+2.48)
  5. Tommy Fleetwood (2.09)

Strokes Gained: Putting on Bentgrass Greens

Valhalla features pure Bentgrass putting surfaces. Players who are comfortable putting on this surface will have an advantage on the greens. 

Strokes Gained: Putting on Bentgrass Greens over Past 24 Rounds:

  1. Ludvig Aberg (+1.12)
  2. Denny McCarthy (+1.08)
  3. Matt Fitzpatrick (+0.99)
  4. Justin Rose (+0.93)
  5. J.T. Poston (0.87)

Strokes Gained: Total on Zoysia Fairways

Valhalla features Zoysia fairways. Players who are comfortable playing on this surface will have an advantage on the field.

Strokes Gained: Total on Zoysia Fairways over past 36 rounds: 

  1. Justin Thomas (+1.53)
  2. Will Zalatoris (+1.47)
  3. Xander Schauffele (+1.40)
  4. Brooks Koepka (+1.35)
  5. Rory McIlroy (+1.23)

2024 PGA Championship Model Rankings

Below, I’ve compiled overall model rankings using a combination of the key statistical categories previously discussed — SG: Approach (25%), SG: Off the Tee (22%), SG: T2G on Very Long Courses (12%), SG: Putting on Bentgrass (+12%), SG: Total on Nicklaus Designs (12%). SG: Total on Zoysia Fairways (8%), and SG: Total in Major Championships (8%). 

  1. Brooks Koepka
  2. Xander Schauffele
  3. Rory McIlroy
  4. Scottie Scheffler
  5. Bryson DeChambeau
  6. Shane Lowry
  7. Alex Noren
  8. Will Zalatoris
  9. Cameron Young
  10. Keith Mitchell
  11. Hideki Matsuyama
  12. Billy Horschel
  13. Patrick Cantlay
  14. Viktor Hovland
  15. Adam Schenk
  16. Chris Kirk
  17. Sahith Theegala
  18. Min Woo Lee
  19. Joaquin Niemann
  20. Justin Thomas

2024 PGA Championship Picks

Ludvig Aberg +1800 (BetMGM)

At The Masters, Ludvig Aberg announced to the golf world that he’s no longer an “up and coming” player. He’s one of the best players in the game of golf, regardless of experience.

Augusta National gave Aberg some necessary scar tissue and showed him what being in contention at a major championship felt like down the stretch. Unsurprisingly, he made a costly mistake, hitting it in the water left of the 11th hole, but showed his resilience by immediately bouncing back. He went on to birdie two of his next three holes and finished in solo second by three shots. With the type of demeanor that remains cool in pressure situations, I believe Ludvig has the right mental game to win a major at this point in his career.

Aberg has not finished outside of the top-25 in his past eight starts, which includes two runner-up finishes at both a “Signature Event” and a major championship. The 24-year-old is absolutely dominant with his driver, which will give him a major advantage this week. In the field he ranks, in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee, and has gained strokes in the category in each of his past ten starts. Aberg is already one of the best drivers of the golf ball on the planet.

In Norse mythology, Valhalla is the great hall where the souls of Vikings feasted and celebrated with the Gods. The Swedes, who are of Old Norse origin, were the last of the three Scandinavian Kingdoms to abandon the Old Norse Gods. A Swede played a major role in the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla, and I believe another, Ludvig Aberg, will be the one to conquer Valhalla in 2024. 

Bryson DeChambeau +2800 (BetMGM)

Bryson DeChambeau is one of the few players in the world that I believe has the game to go blow-for-blow with Scottie Scheffler. Although he isn’t as consistent as Scheffler, when he’s at his best, Bryson has the talent to beat him.

At The Masters, DeChambeau put forth a valiant effort at a golf course that simply does not suit his game. Valhalla, on the other hand, is a course that should be perfect for the 30-year-old. His ability to overpower a golf course with his driver will be a serious weapon this week.

Bryson has had some success at Jack Nicklaus designs throughout his career as he won the Memorial at Muirfield Village back in 2018. He’s also had incredible results on Bentgrass greens for the entirety of his professional career. Of his 10 wins, nine of them have come on Bentgrass greens, with the only exception being the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. He also has second place finishes at Medinah and TPC Summerlin, which feature Bentgrass greens.

Love him or hate him, it’s impossible to argue that Bryson isn’t one of the most exciting and important players in the game of golf. He’s also one of the best players in the world. A second major is coming soon for DeChambeau, and I believe he should be amongst the favorites to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy this week.

Patrick Cantlay +4000 (FanDuel)

There’s no way of getting around it: Patrick Cantlay has been dissapointing in major championships throughout his professional career. He’s been one of the top players on Tour for a handful of years and has yet to truly contend at a major championship, with the arguable exception of the 2019 Masters.

Despite not winning majors, Cantlay has won some big events. The 32-year-old has won two BMW Championships, two Memorial Tournaments as well as a Tour Championship. His victories at Memorial indicate how much Cantlay loves Nicklaus designs, where he ranks 3rd in the field in Strokes Gained: Total over his past 36 rounds behind only Scottie Scheffler and Jon Rahm.

Cantlay also loves Bentgrass greens. Six of Cantlay’s seven individual wins on the PGA Tour have come on Bentgrass greens and he also was one of the best putters at the 2023 Ryder cup at Marco Simone (also Bentgrass). At Caves Valley (2021 BMW Championship), he gained over 12 strokes putting to outduel another Bentgrass specialist, Bryson DeChambeau.

Cantlay finished 22nd in The Masters, which was a solid result considering how many elite players struggled that week. He also has two top-ten finishes in his past five PGA Championships. He’s undeniably one of the best players in the field, therefore, it comes down to believing Cantlay has the mental fortitude to win a major, which I do.

Joaquin Niemann +4000 (BetMGM)

I believe Joaquin Niemann is one of the best players in the world. He has three worldwide wins since December and has continued to improve over the course of his impressive career thus far. Still only 25, the Chilean has all the tools to be a serious contender in major championships for years to come.

Niemann has been the best player on LIV this season. Plenty will argue with the format or source of the money on LIV, but no one can argue that beating players such as Jon Rahm, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Cameron Smith is an unremarkable achievement. Niemann is an elite driver of the golf ball who hits it farther than just about anyone in the field not named Bryson DeChambeau or (arguably) Rory McIlroy.

Niemann is another player who has been fantastic throughout his career on Bentgrass greens. Prior to leaving the PGA Tour, Bentgrass was the only green surface in which Joaco was a positive putter. It’s clearly a surface that he is very comfortable putting on and should fare around and on the greens this week.

Niemann is a perfect fit for Valhalla. His low and penetrating ball flight will get him plenty of runout this week on the fairways and he should have shorter shots into the green complexes than his competitors. To this point in his career, the former top ranked amateur in the world (2018) has been underwhelming in major championships, but I don’t believe that will last much longer. Joaquin Niemann is a major championship caliber player and has a real chance to contend this week at Valhalla.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: What really makes a wedge work? Part 2

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In my last post, I explained the basic performance dynamics of “smash factor” and “gear effect” as they apply to your wedges and your wedge play success. If you missed that post, you can read it here.

At the end of that post, I promised “part 2” of this discussion of what makes a wedge work the way it does. So, let’s dive into the other two components of any wedge – the shaft and the grip.

It’s long been said that the shaft is “the engine of the golf club.” The shaft (and grip) are your only connection to all the technologies that are packed into the head of any golf club, whether it be a driver, fairway, hybrid, iron, wedge or even putter.

And you cannot ignore those two components of your wedges if your goal is optimizing your performance.

I’ve long been an advocate of what I call a “seamless transition” from your irons into your wedges, so that the feel and performance do not disconnect when you choose a gap wedge, for example, instead of your iron-set-matching “P-club.” In today’s golf equipment marketplace, more and more golfers are making the investment of time and money to experience an iron fitting, going through trial and error and launch monitor measuring to get just the right shaft in their irons.

But then so many of those same golfers just go into a store and choose wedges off the retail display, with no similar science involved at all. And that’s why I see so many golfers with a huge disconnect between their custom-fitted irons, often with lighter and/or softer graphite or light steel shafts . . . and their off-the-rack wedges with the stock stiff steel ‘wedge flex’ shaft common to those stock offerings.

If your wedge shafts are significantly heavier and stiffer than the shafts in your irons, it is physically impossible for you to make the same swing. Period.

To quickly improve your wedge play, one of the first things you can do is have your wedges re-shafted with the same or similar shaft that is in your irons.

There’s another side of that shaft weight equation; if you don’t have the forearm and hand strength of a PGA Tour professional, you simply cannot “handle” the same weight shaft that those guys play to master the myriad of ‘touch shots’ around the greens.

Now, let’s move on to the third and other key component of your wedges – the grips. If those are not similar in shape and feel to the grips on your irons, you have another disconnect. Have your grips checked by a qualified golf club professionals to make sure you are in sync there.

The one caveat to that advice is that I am a proponent of a reduced taper in your wedge grips – putting two to four more layers of tape under the lower hand, or selecting one of the many reduced taper grips on the market. That accomplishes two goals for your scoring.

First, it helps reduce overactive hands in your full and near-full wedge swings. Quiet hands are key to good wedge shots.

And secondly, it provides a more consistent feel of the wedge in your hands as you grip down for those shorter and more delicate shots around the greens. And you should always grip down as you get into those touch shots. I call it “getting closer to your work.”

So, if you will spend as much time selecting the shafts and grips for your wedges as you do choosing the brand, model, and loft of them, your scoring range performance will get better.

More from the Wedge Guy

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