As golf fans, we will never get a chance to see many of the best golfers the world has ever seen. We have missed out on tremendous talents, and we will continue to miss out, due to the nature of professional golf.
No one entity is to blame for this reality, but it’s a reality nonetheless. There are simply too many hurdles for aspiring professionals to overcome in order to simply get a “shot” at the big time, and because success largely depends on your personal circumstances, it isn’t a level playing field.
A prime example is my good friend Brian Mackey from Chestnut Ridge, New Jersey. I’ve known Brian for over a decade, so I can speak to the fact that he is not only a tremendous talent, but a skilled competitor who knows how to win - doing so at the amatuer and professional levels. He is currently “pursuing the dream”, and his game continues to improve, but as he explains, you actually need more than just skill to make it.
“The ability to be funded and supported is huge. What it provides is the opportunity for momentum and confidence to build. You need to string together as many positives as possible in order to gain both confidence and momentum. Even when placing in the money, you have to wait several weeks for your check to arrive. Well, what can you do in the meantime without sufficient funds to get you to the next stop? The answer; nothing. You go home, stopping the momentum.”
Unless an individual is fortunate enough to be in a circumstance that can combat issues such as these, their journey will be disadvantaged.
That’s not to say that my friend Brian, and others like him, won’t make it - it’s accomplished numerous times each and every year. We see rookies emerge, and even win, both in Europe and the U.S.. However, the sad reality is that for every individual that makes it, there is an exponentially large number of aspiring pros who never will, and it’s not due to lack of ability, or even potential.
It is not my intent to be critical, but rather to provide an examination of the realities each and every aspiring golfer must face when embarking on their professional journeys. As I reflect, my appreciation for the golfers we all follow on Tour is enhanced, but I also mourn for those who will never even come close to getting their shot, despite possessing the talent required to succeed.
Let’s dig a little deeper into some of the major obstacles which extinguish so many dreams.
1. They start so young
In order to ensure you are good enough to make a living playing professional golf, it is becoming more and more important to begin your training at a very young age. Golf has always been regarded as a game of privilege, and if parents want their children to have every chance to succeed, they are going to have to pay for it. This is an automatic disadvantage for many aspiring players, for the overwhelming majority of families in North America do not have the financial means to set their children along such a path.
If you want to make a run at a career as a professional golfer, you are going to need financial backing. Finding sponsors can be extremely difficult, and working out sponsorship deals is an even bigger headache because there are so many different ways that these deals can be worked out. When 2-time major winner Zach Johnson began his pursuit, he sold $500 shares to members at his local club in Iowa. It provided him enough to get started. Joe Ogilvie turned pro the same year as Johnson (1998) and followed a similar sponsorship model. He sold $2000 shares to raise $46,000 dollars to allow him to start playing, and the shares were all sold to personal acquaintances. The deal with his investors had a multi-tiered structure, whereby 90% of his winnings went back to his investors until he reached the $46,000 mark. At that point their was a 50/50 split on his earnings until he hit the next plateau of $92,000, and then he kept 75% until he hit the $130,000 mark. It wasn’t until he reached $130,000 in prize money that he began being able to keep the money he was earning. As we examine these numbers, it’s important to remember that all of these deals are being structured while playing on developmental tours, where purses are often very modest. Ogilvie was fortunate enough to be able to start out on the Nike Tour (now Web.com Tour), while Johnson was starting even lower, playing in Hooters Tour events.
Travel expenses are huge! Young professionals need to play in as many events as possible in order to earn enough money to reimburse sponsors, pay themselves, and in the process cover all other expenses involved in competing. While playing on the Nationwide Tour (now Web.com Tour) in 2010, current PGA Tour pro Scott Stallings wrote articles for a CBS business affiliate, and provided some meaningful insights into his expenses. “On average, my budget (was) about $2,000 week -- that includes travel expenses, my caddy, tournament fees, everything. That adds up to $96,000 a year.”
4. Many hats
Stallings provides further insight into the challenges he faced as an aspiring professional. I am a professional golfer. I practice, I train, I grind it out everyday on the course. I am also a small business owner: I'm an accountant, boss, employee, employer, human resources rep, and maintenance man all wrapped up into one guy. I have one main goal: Put myself in the best shape possible to play golf, win tournaments, and earn enough revenue to make a decent living. (Of course, if I can win a PGA Tour Card in the process, all the better.)” Stallings paints a vivid picture of exactly what it means to be an aspiring professional. It involves so much more than just golf.
5. Sell yourself
Investing in a mini-tour professional is a very risky investment, and for this reason it is very difficult for any player to convince a potential sponsor to take a chance on them. Often times the best bet for sponsorship comes from knowing a family member or friend whose desire to provide financial support has little to do with financial gain. Most golfers don’t have support networks with this kind of financial potential, and thus the odds are even more stacked against them.
6. It can’t be about making money
As a young professional the goal cannot be making money. Anyone committing to the process of pursuing PGA Tour membership, must recognize that the early stages of their career will serve as a means to an end. Web.com Tour member Mackenzie Hughes puts it this way: “It’s not about making money….If I make $100,000 (along the way to the PGA Tour), or break even doing that, so be it.”
Often times you are putting your life on hold as you work to achieve professional goals. It isn’t like any other job, even jobs in other professional sports, where you can sign for a guaranteed paycheck. If you are committing to playing professional golf, you are committing to putting many other aspects of life on hold. Relationships and family are virtually impossible to develop, and you’re also sacrificing years of pay and experience in another career - one which is virtually always much more stable than an emerging career in professional golf. Even if you decide to take the plunge, the question often becomes how long to continue pursuing the dream? At what point does perseverance become foolishness?
Even if you raise enough support to go and play, you still have no guarantee of making a dime. Each golfer will however be required to pay their caddy fees for the week, tournament registration, food and lodging. Many tournament fees alone are over $1000 dollars. The fact that you can put up this kind of money to play a game where one shot can be the difference between missing a cut and making a paycheck, is enough to deter many young talents from even trying.
9. Fend for yourself
Sports such as football, baseball, basketball and hockey are structured much different than golf. Scouts are paid to find talented athletes worth investing in. In golf, the only scouts are collegiate coaches, and while they will invest in your development, it ceases once you’re handed a diploma. When a prospect from another major sport is drafted by an organization, they often get a contract, along with a signing bonus. Effective immediately, their job becomes to develop their talents, and their employer gives them everything they need in order to grow. In other words, they are being paid, and given every necessary resource required for success. They are systems such as these which are designed to find the athletes with the greatest potential, and develop that potential. While it is possible for talent to slip through the cracks in any system, there is a greater chance in the world of golf. Professional golfers are self-employed, while athletes in other major sports get employed. We hear the Cinderella stories of players, such as Jason Day or Zach Johnson, who have risen above numerous obstacles to reach the pinnacle of the game, but do we ever stop to think about the realities of what make these stories so inspiring? It stems from the fact that golf is structured to make it difficult for anyone, regardless of how talented they are, to earn the right to be able to show that they have what it takes to compete at the highest level.
10. It’s all or nothing
Professional golf does not lend itself to taking your time. If you want to make it, you will almost certainly need to dive in head first. Touring pros are ridiculously skilled, and to make it, you need to practice a significant amount of hours weekly. The minute you are working another job in order to stay fed, you put yourself at an immediate disadvantage. The players who make it, do so because they go all out.
This article was written by Jonathan Carr (@jonathanwcarr) as part of our weekly 'Top 10' series. As a scratch golfer himself, Jonathan has a keen eye for what it takes to be successful on and off the golf course. His passion for golf is surpassed only by his passion for his faith and his family.
Read some of Jonathan's other articles here.