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Golf for Dreamers

Professional golf's version of the minor leagues draws hundreds of players willing to put up their own money for the prize pool, and a faraway goal of making the PGA Tour
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
David Caruso, Jan/Feb 2007

Without the slightest fanfare, Steve Marino stepped to the 10th tee of a desert course near Scottsdale, Arizona, on his way to making history. Some personal history, that is. He was playing in the Grey Goose Gateway Tour Championship, an important event for those who play in it, an invisible one for those who don't.

There were no massive grandstands at the Outlaw Course in the Desert Mountain development. There were no galleries surrounding the greens or standing five deep at the tees. The few spectators—loved ones and friends—were outnumbered by the cacti about a thousand to one. Johnny Miller wasn't in a tower behind the 18th green and there was no press corps to chronicle the event. This was a minitour tournament, far from the Tigerized PGA Tour where thousands watch and millions in prizes are at stake. Hardly a soul was witness to Steve Marino's personal history.

On the short par-4 10th, the 26-year-old Marino ripped a drive that landed 30 yards short of the green and hopped perfectly to the putting surface where it barely missed going in for an ace. He made his three-foot eagle putt and stood at 9-under par for 10 holes. He would make two birdies, then another eagle at the par-5 16th, finish with two routine pars and shoot that magic number of 59, a round that carried him to the Grey Goose Tour title. As he tapped in his putt on the 18th, there was applause from the handful of pros, tournament officials and the odd spectator. There aren't any roars in minitour golf, not even for a 59.

Here in the minor leagues of the game, David Feherty doesn't prowl the fairways wielding a cutting-edge wit, hospitality suites filled with the pampered privileged don't overlook the greens, and golf company reps don't haunt the driving range to make sure their prized players have everything they need. The minitours of golf aren't for the masses.

Instead, minitours are where dreams of playing the PGA Tour are kept alive, where games are honed and lessons learned. For the tough, talented few, they are stepladders to the PGA Tour. For some, they are cushions, safety nets that catch them when bad play knocks them from PGA heaven. But for most, they are a proving ground of a negative sort, proving, that is, that the vast majority of players don't have what it takes to compete with the Phil Mickelsons and Vijay Singhs, or even the Brett Quigleys and Joe Durants.

The NGA Hooters Professional Golf Tour is the most established of these tours, based in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. The Grey Goose Tour is a relative newcomer based in Scottsdale, with a division in West Palm Beach (it will operate under a new title sponsor in 2007). There are many smaller tours across the United States, such as the Tight Lies Tour, the A.G. Spanos Tour, the Golden State Tour, the Tarheel Tour, the Dakotas Tour and an ambitious newcomer, the U.S. Pro Golf Tour. The latter has support from Donald Trump and intends to operate 22 tournaments in 2007, its first full season.

These tours share something in common: they are filled with dreamers. And there's reason for more than a little hope in those dreams. Occasionally, great players do emerge from the satellite competitions. Tom Lehman, Jim Furyk, John Daly, David Toms, Ben Curtis, Lee Janzen and Shaun Micheel, all major tournament winners, played Hooters Tour golf (back in their time, it was known as the T.C. Jordan Tour).

What Lehman & Co. have achieved drives hundreds of good, young players to play for their own money in the hopes that one day they will be playing for the millions put up by others. Minitour players put up the money that makes these tours possible, but there are no guarantees that a PGA Tour spot awaits. These minitours are not affiliated with the PGA Tour. The PGA has its own minor league tour, the Nationwide, that provides automatic promotion to the big tour for its most accomplished players. So no matter what a player does on the minitours, he still has to go through the grueling PGA Tour qualification process. The minis, therefore, provide a tournament-style venue for players that lets them experience the thrill—or misery—of standing over a putt where the money means more than just a check in your pocket.

More than anything, minitour players practice grinding.

"This is organized gambling," says Marc Turnesa, 28, a University of North Carolina graduate and Grey Goose Tour player. "It's no different than gambling with a bunch of buddies and putting up $1,300 apiece. Of course, if you did, you would be playing for 100 percent of it, not here, where you play for maybe 80 percent. But it's a good way to prepare for [PGA] Q school and that's all that matters."

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