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Golf's Traveling Circus

The Hooters Tour draws a crowd of pro golf wannabes looking for their big break far from the crowds of the PGA Tour
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Phil Ivey, March/April 2010

31,250. That's how many miles I've put on my car in the last year. In that time, my dinged-up, 2000 Mitsubishi Mirage has seen seven or eight engine services and oil changes, four worn down tires, countless gas stations and one uncooperative fan belt come and go. It has traveled from Florida to Oklahoma to North Carolina. Illinois to Arkansas and back home to Atlanta, Georgia, all in the name of my chosen profession: golf. Meanwhile, Tiger Woods has dropped $20 million on a 155-foot, Christensen yacht he'll probably use a half dozen times in the next year. Tiger can comfortably live on his yacht. For all intents and purposes, I do live in my car or out of it at the very least. We play the same sport for a living, but we are worlds apart.

While Tiger, Phil and the rest of the golfing glitterati stalk the fairways of the world's greatest courses week in and week out, there is another contingent of professionals quietly trying to summit the same mountain Tiger and Phil sit atop of. We don't travel by private jet or courtesy car, but in carloads of two and sometimes three guys packed in with our clubs and our clothes. We eat at Chili's and Outback and when money is a little tight, McDonald's. We stay at Motel 6s and Howard Johnsons, and we play courses in places like Miami and Philadelphia, but not the ones you're thinking of: These towns are in Oklahoma and Mississippi, respectively. We are the touring professionals who play on the developmental or "mini" tours across the country. I am a member of the largest and longest running of these "mini" tours, the NGA Hooters Tour.

In the last week of September the final event of the 2009 NGA Hooters Tour season, the Capitol Chevrolet Classic, was held at Woodcreek Farms Golf Course in Elgin, South Carolina. On Monday morning my roommate and fellow pro, David Skinns, and I packed my little black car to the rafters with golf bags, suitcases, golf clothes and spare clubs and traversed three hours east on I-20 from our home in Atlanta to Elgin. This would be the third time Woodcreek Farms had hosted a Hooters Tour event, and it was my third time playing there.

The course is a challenging Tom Fazio design nestled in a bustling housing estate that resembles pretty much every other golf course/housing estate development we had played that year, or any year for that matter. It is not unattractive; upscale suburban houses line the majority of the fairways and several residences skirt the lakes in and around the course. However, when it comes to these golf course communities it can often become a case of "seen one, seen them all" (aesthetically, at least). That's part of the reason the Hooters Tour has earned the nickname, "The Circus" amongst the players. The Circus rolls into town, sets up camp, stays for a week and then moves on to a city or town exactly like the one it just left. That's what the Hooters Tour is like, except without the big top.

Like the PGA Tour, the Hooters Tour regularly returns to courses and communities that host successful tournaments and few have hosted better tournaments or welcomed the Hooters Tour more than the Woodcreek Farms community. I found this out on my first visit to Elgin three years earlier. Arriving at the tournament that week without having organized accommodations, I was looking for a place to stay and through a combination of luck and generosity I was offered the upstairs bedroom of a local named Bart Bartlett who lived on the 4th hole. There was only one issue; Bart's wife, Leigh, was eight months pregnant with twins, and was thus confined to permanent bed rest. "Could I handle that?" Bart inquired. Instead of paying upwards of $75 a night for a hotel, you bet I could!

I was lounging around at the Bartlett's on Sunday afternoon with my girlfriend at the time when Bart ran into the upstairs living room, panting and out of breath. He paused for about half a second before blurting out in one, uninterrupted sentence, "Leigh's water has broken, we're going to the hospital, and here are the keys, call you later." He then spun around and ran back out of the room. My girlfriend and I could only stare at each other.

Nearly three years later I was back staying in the Bartlett's spare room. Leigh was back to full health and the twin boys, Lawton and Louie, now two-and-a-half, were stumbling around the house, struggling to construct full sentences and generally being adorable, identically dressed twins.

During a normal week on tour, downtime translates to watching a lot of Golf Channel while lying on a hotel bed or maybe catching a movie or two. This week my off-course relaxation consisted of making Play-Doh elephants and snowmen and watching an unhealthy amount of "Sponge Bob Squarepants." With two kids of his own under the age of three, at least Tiger and I had that in common for a week.

Despite having total annual prize money ($3.6 million) that equates to less than the prize pool at a single PGA Tour event, the Hooters Tour does a fantastic job of running their events as close to that of a PGA tournament as possible. Many consider this approach to be the reason the Hooters Tour produces so many players ready to make an impact on the PGA and Nationwide Tours when they make the jump to the next level: they are prepared for the rites and rituals that go with playing in a major professional event, even before a ball has been struck on Thursday morning. One of the most important of those rituals is the Wednesday pro-am.

When I tell people I play golf on the Hooters Tour they generally look at me one of two ways: Men will look at me like I am the luckiest man alive, revere me in a way that should only be reserved for statesmen and scholars, and ask me coyly, "So...are there, like, Hooters Girls everywhere when you play or what?" The women will simply roll their eyes like I have just told them I am part-owner of an adult novelty store. The answer to the men's question is, no, unfortunately there are not Hooters Girls running around everywhere when we play. Except on pro-am days, that is.
For the pros the Wednesday pro-am is a day to work on our games, eat free food and maybe network a little. For the amateurs, many of whom have been dragged (presumably not kicking and screaming) by friends or coworkers to play in the pro-am, their entry fee grants them a day of drinking complimentary Michelob Ultra and eating hot wings, getting photos with the local Hooters Girls and maybe getting a couple lessons from their pros along the way. The week of the Capitol Chevrolet Classic I was lucky enough to play the pro-am with Bart, his father-in-law, and a business partner.

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