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.
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.
Andrew Dearborn, director of the Cleveland Tour, says that even though most players will lose money playing on mini-tours, it's a step they simply have to take. "To make it, players need the experience against good competition," he says. "If you go into Q-School unprepared, those guys are going to roll over you."
Feeling burned out
Last week, Goodhue failed to advance past the first stage of Q-School for the second straight year, so it's back to the mini-tours. After competing in close to 35 events in 12 months, he's struggling with burnout. "I just need to go waste some space for a couple of weeks and figure out where I'm going to play next. This is just too frustrating," he says.
Joseph Summerhays, on the other hand, is quietly celebrating after playing well enough to move on to stage two. But he knows not to let himself get too excited. "I've made it past the first stage five times. But I've never made it any further," says the resident of Farmington, Utah. "Unless you make it past the second stage, you haven't really done anything."
Getting to the third stage is key - it guarantees players at least year-long status on the Nationwide Tour, the "triple A" of pro golf. "Every year you come close, its so disappointing to have to go back to the mini-tours," says Mr. Summerhays, who has played on four or five different circuits for the past eight years. "This year I'm really trying to keep it all in perspective." Helping him keep that perspective is his wife, Michelle, who walked the course with him at Q-School last week at the San Juan Oaks Golf Club in California.
At least Summerhays has enough money to keep trying. Despite setting personal bests - finishing first and second - in two recent events, Milam didn't feel financially secure enough to put down the money for the Q-School gamble this year. He's thinking about giving the Cleveland Tour a shot next year to earn a little cash and sharpen his game.
Milam has plenty of other options. There's the Gateway Tour in Florida and Arizona, the NGA/Hooters tour that holds events across the South, the Spanos Tour in California, the Moonlight Tour - the list goes on.
Many pros press on because they know that making a successful leap from the mini-tour ranks to the PGA is always a possibility. In fact, Sean O'Hair, who played on the Cleveland Tour in 2004, has done just that, winning a PGA event this year and walking away with almost $3 million in prize money as he heads toward a possible PGA Rookie of the Year award.
Still, out on the Cleveland Tour, it's pretty obvious that this is not "the Tour." During tournaments, competitors often have to share the course with weekend duffers. With the tournament action heating up on the final nine at Granite Links, a player's caddy repeatedly asks the happy hackers playing on adjacent holes to "pipe down." "People are trying to make a living out here," he says, frustrated. But it's the nature of the beast - mini-tours can rarely afford to get a course all to themselves for an entire tournament. All Goodhue can do is smile and try to shrug away the distraction when an errant shot from an adjacent hole lands nearby and someone yells "Fore!"
That, and keep his eyes on the prize.
Earning a spot on the PGA Tour is not for the faint of heart. More than 1,000 golfers compete for 30 open slots during the PGA's Qualifying School.
From Nov. 9-19, the top 200 players who made it out of October's first round will play in the second stage at courses in Texas, Florida, and California. This is where the competition really gets tight. Joining the first-stage qualifiers are former members of the PGA Tour, including players who made the cut at 2005's four Majors.
Those who make it out of the second stage will then play in the finals starting Nov. 30 in Winter Garden, Fla. There more Tour players will enter the fray, including former Tour stars who lost their card after an off year in 2005. Only a tiny handful of true rookies will earn a card for 2006. Then a new battle begins: proving that they belong in Tiger land.