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
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."
Jamie Neher, of West Palm Beach, Florida, was the Grey Tour's leading money winner in 2006 with more than $160,000. Not bad when you consider that the average purse is around $120,000 and the average first prize is $20,000. It can cost a player upward of $36,000 in entry fees to play in all 31 events. At 33, Neher is getting up in age, but he still holds on to the PGA Tour dream. It doesn't hurt that he's a good friend of British Open champ and fellow Floridian Nick Price. While he was fishing with Price one day, the conversation turned to golf strategy and the outcome turned Neher's game around.
"Nick asked me how many pins I aimed for in a round," says Neher. "I said most of them. He said he probably aimed at four pins a round, maybe six. He said it's more important to be putting from the correct side of the pin than it is just trying to get close to it all the time, and maybe risking something by going for them. My game has improved ever since. I'm not giving away as many shots. I won tournaments this year not playing my best, which is a real good sign. When you can perform when you aren't playing your best, it means you have a solid game."
Most players believe they have a solid game or they wouldn't be on the minitours, where there are no courtesy cars, hospitality rooms or even many caddies (they're too expensive). To watch them play is to be at once in awe of their games and awestruck by the fact that, despite their perseverance, most of them are just not good enough to reach the PGA Tour.
Marion Dantzler is a 43-year-old from Orangeburg, South Carolina, who plays the Hooters Tour and has gone to the PGA Tour qualifying school 14 times, 13 times coming away with nothing. He once qualified to play on the Nationwide Tour, but pulled a muscle in his back early in the season and never had a chance. He's won only once on the Hooters Tour, a 1993 playoff victory over Gary Nicklaus when his legendary father, Jack, was caddying for him. He drives a 1993 Toyota with more than 323,000 miles on it. He's never had to sleep in it, but he once passed out at the wheel from exhaustion after a tournament in Oklahoma. He supplements his income by producing the yardage books that players use during the tournaments.
"I could be doing other things and making more money," says Dantzler. "But I enjoy the game of golf, and I feel I can get better. We stay in private housing a lot on this tour. I've made some great friends because of that and I wouldn't want to trade that for anything."
If Dantzler might be a little old to still dream of playing on the PGA Tour, Gareth Maybin is in full flight. The 26-year-old from Ballyclare, Northern Ireland, has no doubt that his talent and desire can carry him to the Tour. "I've got the talent. I've got the work ethic," says Maybin, who attended the University of South Alabama. "I've won two Hooters Tour events, and the Alabama Open. I know I can win out here and have the game to make it to the top."
He's been given that opportunity by virtue of sponsorship, which is common among minitour players (see sidebar, page 119.) In Maybin's case, it was acquaintances in a local pub who provided him with a grubstake. "The Five Corners Bar is a half mile up the road from my house and ten guys got together two years ago and wanted to sponsor me. I entered into a contract with them. To play the [entire] Hooters Tour, it takes about $24,000. I won early this year and I've been able to keep going off of that."
Todd Demsey is lucky to have kept going at all. Demsey, 34, is playing the Grey Goose Tour in his hometown of Scottsdale. In his case, the Grey Goose is a safety net that caught him when he fell off the Nationwide Tour. It looked as if Demsey was destined for the PGA Tour when he won the 1993 NCAA championship playing for Arizona State, where he followed Phil Mickelson onto the team. He was never quite good enough to be a Tour regular, but he did play more than 200 Nationwide Tour events. A bad back, which had plagued him since college, eventually took its toll, and in 2001 he didn't play any competitive golf, instead going through intense rehabilitation.
Demsey returned in 2002 to the Nationwide Tour. He had been bothered by intense headaches for a while, always seemed to have cold-like symptoms and had been on antibiotics to treat a sinus infection. When the headaches and infection wouldn't go away, he was finally X-rayed, which revealed a tumor the size of two golf balls growing behind his left sinus. He continued to play until late in 2002, and then underwent surgery.
"There was a 10 percent chance of death or brain damage because of the surgery," says Demsey. "It was a real problem. It takes a lot out of you. Golf becomes less important. When you get your skull opened up, it gives you a different perspective."
He tried playing the Nationwide Tour again, but didn't perform well. He tried new swing thoughts, new putting strokes, but he didn't get the results he needed to stay exempt. So the Grey Goose Tour gives him a place to play, and close to home. "They do a really good job here," says Demsey. "They run it like a Nationwide event. We don't play for that money, of course, but they set up the courses good, sometimes harder than they are on the Nationwide." Demsey, however, earned a 2007 Nationwide Tour card with his performance at the PGA Tour's Q School. The road back has begun.
Charley Yandell, owner of the Grey Goose Tour and its director, says it's important to set up courses to challenge the players and better prepare them for the PGA Tour qualifying process while at the same time providing an economical place to play. "All our tournaments here, and in our West Palm Beach Tour, are played in the same area, so that means no airplanes or hotels, [which helps] keep costs down," says Yandell. "We want to set up the courses as tough as we can, keeping in mind that we can't grow heavy rough on these members courses. We give them some pretty interesting pins to shoot at and get the green speed up as fast as we can. The most important thing is that we have never missed a paycheck or canceled an event. We've become a stable, dependable place to play."
The Grey Goose Tour lets its players ride in carts and wear shorts, two things that are not permitted on the Hooters, Nationwide and PGA tours. Steve White, the Hooters Tour vice president of operations, thinks his tour offers first-rate, maybe even better, preparation for the PGA. "We play our tournaments in a number of different states where there's travel involved and the courses can be quite different," says White. "We require them to walk [they don't have to have caddies] and they must wear long pants. We think this is the best kind of preparation for the Tour, giving these players a lot of the variables and rules they would face on the Tour."
The Hooters Tour runs fewer events than the Grey Goose, but the purses are somewhat larger. In 2007, the Hooters Tour will offer 18 tournaments, each with a purse of $200,000 and first prize of $34,000. It costs $2,000 to join the Hooters Tour and each event has a $1,000 entry fee. While Grey Goose players are competing for about 85 percent of their entry fees (with a takeout for tournament management and costs), Hooters Tour players are playing for about 116 percent of their entry fees. "Unlike the other tours, we're not in business to make money," says White. "This is a marketing arm for Hooters restaurants. Nearly every town we go to has a Hooters restaurant. We become front-page-of-the-paper. And we are a good place to play golf."
For Tommy Biershenk, 33, married with two children, the Hooters Tour has given him a chance for redemption. Biershenk played the Nationwide Tour from 1999 to 2003, but not all that well. He lost his status, and more importantly, his confidence as a professional. In 2004, he sold room key folders with advertising on them to hotels and didn't play any competitive golf. That lack of competition eventually gnawed at him.
"That year off was good for me," says Biershenk. "I realized that golf was the only thing I was good at. I need to quit being a baby and get out there and get to it. I looked back and said, Here's an idiot who's blessed with talent and you just want to quit, give up. I know there is a lot of golf ahead of me."
That's what so many of these players think, what keeps them going through the three-putt greens, the chunked wedges, the bad bounces and the tough lies. Hope springs eternal, even in 39-year-old Brian Cooper. In 2005, Cooper, a former minitour player with 30 victories under his belt, was down on his luck and himself. He was working as a caddie at the Silverleaf club near Scottsdale when he happened to caddie for former Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Mark Grace. Grace invited him to play at his club, Whisper Rock, and during that day asked him about his absence from tour golf.
"Why aren't you playing," said Grace.
"I don't have any money," said Cooper.
"Well, you do now. What do you need to play?"
And so began Grace's sponsorship of Cooper.
"I get pretty emotional when I think of what Mark has done for me," says Cooper, who's still chasing the dream, still going to the PGA Tour Q despite a mediocre season. "I was at the end of my line. I needed one more chance."
Having played at the highest levels, Todd Demsey knows how he, and so many others, can hold on to that dream and look for one more, two more, three more chances to succeed. "It's such a fine line between the guys out on this tour, the guys on the Nationwide and the guys on the PGA Tour," says Demsey. "You've got Tiger and Phil and a couple of dozen others with a big talent difference, but the rest of the guys up there aren't that much different from the guys here. It's a very fine line and it's almost all mental. I don't need to make changes. I just have to trust what I have and believe you can do great things. Just getting it done when it really matters."
A guy like Casey Wittenberg is pretty sure he can get it done, he just hasn't done it yet. Wittenberg, just 22, played only one year of college golf before turning pro after the 2004 U.S. Open. A runner-up finish in the 2003 U.S. Amateur had earned him an invitation to the Masters, where he finished 13th the following year. In 2005, he played again in both the Masters and U.S. Open. He got a handful of sponsor exemptions to PGA Tour events, but he couldn't get through the difficult PGA Tour qualifying process and found himself playing on the Hooters Tour in 2006.
"You know, you can be playing on the Hooters Tour one week and a month later be playing on the PGA Tour," says Wittenberg. "I've been the No. 1 junior player, the No. 1 amateur player. I turned pro at 19 and I'm 22 now and definitely more mature. There's no reason for me not to be successful. There are a lot of guys who have their PGA Tour cards that if you put them in the first stage of Tour school, many wouldn't make it through all three stages. That's just how tough it is, how many good players there are."