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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

(continued from page 1)

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."

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