Golfers looking to make it to the PGA Tour face months on the road and a grueling trip to qualifying school.
Here in the hinterlands of professional golf, there is no happy crowd to "ooh" and "ahh" every time Justin Goodhue lets loose with a 300-yard drive. Or clap for him when he sinks a long putt. Hefting his own bag around the course, Mr. Goodhue doesn't even have a caddy to encourage him.Skip to next paragraph
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On the 11th hole of the final round of the recent Granite Links Open, Goodhue is only a few shots off the lead. If this were the PGA Tour, thousands would be cheering for him as he walks the fairways. Here, one elderly couple who have been trailing along with Goodhue's group for a couple of holes, are his only spectators. When asked if they are friends or relatives, they sheepishly admit that they thought they were watching someone else play. "We haven't heard of Goodhue," they say. Taking a look at the pairings sheet, they hustle away to find their man. No other fans appear for the rest of the round.
Goodhue is a professional golfer - and a pretty good one at that. Shooting 66 in competition, as the 24-year-old did in the first round here, is an accomplishment that only the game's most talented can muster. But this year he may pull in $20,000 - what Tiger Woods makes tying his Nikes. Goodhue is still a long way from professional golf's holy grail - a PGA Tour card, which would allow him to play on the game's biggest stage.
Welcome to the world of the mini-tour, the training grounds for golf's next generation of stars. Every week, thousands of Tiger-wannabes log hundreds of miles on the road, sleep in their cars or pile four into a motel room, and fall deeper and deeper into debt. They're constantly faced with a stark reality: score well or go home empty handed. Only the top 40 percent of players in any tournament earns a paycheck, and a small one at that.
But they do it for a chance to live their dream, one which many have had since they were old enough to pick up a putter. And next week, a few will get a step closer as the grueling PGA Tour Qualifying School enters its second stage.
"It's tough out there," explains James Milam, who has been competing on mini-tours and state opens in Arizona and across the west for almost three years. "When we're not actually competing ... we're working as caddies, bag boys, waiters, or bartenders - just trying to make enough money to keep playing." Mr. Milam has put 80,000 miles on his car over the past two years and has installed a clothing rod in the back seat.
For all but the top few players, the economics of mini-tour golf just don't make much sense. Consider the northeast's Cleveland Tour, sponsored by the Cleveland equipment company and one of the sport's best-run "minor leagues," where Goodhue plays. To join the tour and gain entry into its 10 tournaments, players must put down $10,250. Equipment, transportation, and motels add to that amount.
How much can someone earn in an event? The winner at Granite Links took home $13,000. Goodhue, with just a couple of errant shots, fell back to ninth place, earning him $2,200 - not bad for three days work. But over the course of the season, only the top 30 on the money list will earn enough to make their season's entry-fee back. And with the cost of life on the road, only a few will actually take home any profit.
Goodhue, who has split his time between Florida and New England the past few years, has been living with his parents in Connecticut to save money when he's not out on the road. "And I'm really getting too old for that," he says with a wry smile.
Money isn't the only goal of the mini-tour players. Competing every week helps prepare their games - and their nerves - for the most difficult tournament of all: PGA Tour Qualifying School. With very few exceptions, it's the only way to make it to the next level. Each October, some 2,000 golfers plunk down as much as $12,000 to tee it up at Q-school, visions of six-figure paydays, endorsement deals, and major-championship appearances dancing in their heads.