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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.

Playing a scramble format, Team Mackay managed to shoot a 12-under 60, a score that put us in the middle of the pro-am pack and made my team of once-in-a-while golfers pretty proud of themselves. After the round, the players and locals mingled around the open bar, joking and trading stories from their rounds. As the sun was setting and the pro-am participants began slowly filing out of the clubhouse, several players were still on the driving range, making last minute adjustments before the start of the working week.

Following the pro-am the rest of the week on The Hooters Tour settles into a fairly predictable pattern: Players will tee it up for their first rounds either in the morning or afternoon waves on Thursday and then play in the opposite wave on Friday. After the first two rounds are completed there is a cut made and the top 60 scores and ties move on to play the weekend and make money. Despite starting out as a week filled with promise, the 2009 Capitol Chevrolet Classic became a tournament I would rather forget. I managed to put up my worst round of the year, a six-over 78 in the opening round to all but take myself out of the tournament. I came back with a slightly more respectable (but no less frustrating) 73 in the second round and missed the cut by a wide margin. As had been the story for much of the year, I simply threw away too many shots, squandered too many chances, and failed to execute when I needed to the most.

It was a fitting end to a tough year on the mini tours. Due to several different factors I ended up playing only a small amount of the season: 10 events and a handful of Monday qualifiers for the Nationwide Tour. This was down from a career-high of 19 events and six Monday qualifiers I played in 2007, which resulted in earnings of a shade over $20,000. If that sounds like a tough way to make a living, it is.

Each event on The Hooters Tour costs $1,100 to enter. This is where the majority of the tournament purse comes from. If it comes across as glorified gambling, that's basically what it amounts to at times. Of the $200,000 tournament purse, $33,000 goes to the winner. Playing well can mean earning a very good living. In the 2009 season two players earned over $100,000 and the leading money winner, Ted Potter of Silver Springs, Florida, pushed the $200,000 mark. That being said, it can be tough to make ends meet as it costs anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 to travel and play a year on the mini tours. That roughly equates to finishing in the top 50 at the end of the year, and with well over 200 players competing regularly on the Hooters Tour each season it becomes very competitive to make it into the money each week.

A weekend away from work is what most people in the professional world look forward to come Friday-"TGIF." Not golfers. No, a weekend off is the golfing equivalent of getting fired. It doesn't' matter if you miss the cut by one or one hundred, you still don't get paid. So you simply try to forget about it and move on.

Moving on from Woodcreek Farms meant traveling to Chattanooga on Sunday afternoon to play in the Nationwide Tour's Monday qualifier at Bear Trace Golf Course. Despite shooting a two-under 70 there I was never really in contention to make it through the qualifier, which played off at 67. Those events can be an even tougher experience than a regular mini tour event. It's a case of "Go low or go home" and very rarely does a score of 68 or more get close to qualifying for a Nationwide Tour event. So you move on, dump your clubs back in the trunk of your car, stuff your clothes in your suitcase and get out of dodge. There's always next week.

The next event on most players schedule is the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, or Q School as it is so adorably nicknamed. It's that fun-filled event where (if you're lucky enough to advance through all three stages) you end up playing 252 holes through three separate tournaments over two months to play your way into the "big dance" where Tiger is prom king and Phil the most popular boy in the class.

Playing in this pressure-packed saga costs each individual the princely sum of $4,500, that's not including travel costs to each separate stage of the tournament. While the cost of entering might be on the steep side, the rewards for getting through to the final stage are almost immeasurable for a mini tour player. A chance to qualify for the PGA Tour is the grand prize, while automatic Nationwide Tour status (depending on placing at final stage) becomes a huge incentive to go back to school. If there is such a thing, it's the easiest way to avoid the grind of the mini tour circuit for the next season.

That being said, the hefty entry fee is the main reason I did not sign up to go back to school for the third time this year. It was a tough decision, but in my circumstance, paying the rent during the winter took precedence over career ambitions. At any rate, Q School will still be there for the taking next year.

For my compatriots it will be the last roll of the dice in 2009, or else it's back to Monday qualifying, the Hooters Tour, or one of a half-dozen other tours scattered around the country. Back to the traveling circus that is mini tour golf where you never know if you're going to make $33,000 that week, or $3,000, or nothing. Or it means finding a "real" job and making a steady income. A job where you don't get to drive 31,250 miles in a calendar year, eat at Chili's, stay at the Motel 6 in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and put four new tires on your beat-up Mitsubishi Mirage every six months. In short: a job where you don't get to sweat out four-foot par putts for a living. Trade it in for a steady paycheck? Not on your life.

Nick Mackay is a native of Australia trying to make it as a professional golfer in America.

 

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