What is like to be on the fringe of the PGA Tour
Ben Martin (31), a professional American golfer who plays on the PGA Tour, turned professional in 2010. He finished runner-up at Q-school for the PGA Tour in October, just six months after turning pro, which is a dream many young golfers fail to achieve. Ben was a golf prodigy by any standard. Yet the road before and on the PGA Tour was far from simple.
At the beginning of 2012, when Ben was still a rookie, it was vital for him to play well on the second round of the McGladrey Classic, a PGA Tour Fall Series event held every October, since at that time his 173rd position on the PGA Tour’s “money list” was not nearly good enough. He made $284,500 in prize money since January 2011 and didn’t have a prayer of making the top 125 that season. Only the top 125 players out of about 235 touring pros get to keep their tour card, which allows them to enter any of the PGA Tour’s official events.
Players ranked between 126 and 150 also retain their cards and can compete in events when needed to fill out the field. The alternative is to return to the gruelling PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, better known as Q-school, in a last-ditch effort to retain his card and then, most likely, demotion to the Nationwide Tour, PGA Tour’s minor league. And the financial repercussions here are huge – prize money on the Nationwide is only about 10% of the tour.
Young players are forced to find financial backers, typically in return for a share of their future winnings if they don’t have significant family wealth. It costs a minimum of $110,000 on the PGA Tour and $75,000 on the Nationwide to compete for a year, but there are no guaranteed paydays. Each week the worst-scoring half of the field is eliminated after the second day of the four-day tournament, which means they end earning nothing. They are, however, still responsible for their travel expenses and must pay their caddies.
Before young golfers get the opportunity to play on the Nationwide Tour or the PGA Tour, they start on one of the “mini-tours” that aren’t cheap to play in either. Each tour costs $1,500 to join, and there is an entry fee, usually around $1,200, for the individual tournaments. Ben’s father estimated it would cost at least $50,000 for his son to play on them for a year.
To raise money for Ben to chased the dream, his father asked 100 friends of the family to contribute $300 toward Ben’s living expenses, like rent and food. He also drew up a list of 17 well-off friends to ask for an investment of $3,000 annually for three years, but luckily Ben did well his first year as a pro, managing to win $35,000 in victory, so that wasn’t necessary. Overall his prize money on the mini-tours totalled $49,000. He was going to the big leagues, and he was in for some major adjustments.
But going to play on the PGA Tour, there started to emerge other problems. In 2011 Ben would spend 27 weeks on the road, sometimes leaving his home for more than a month at a stretch. He was 23 for most of his first season, while the average PGA Tour pro is 35 years old. Most of his buddies were still playing the mini-tours. It was isolating and he mostly travelled alone. “The only thing I wasn’t really prepared for was the amount of golf and travel that you do on the PGA Tour,” he explained. The stress of a relentless travel schedule also started to wear on him. In most places, he saw little more than the golf course, the hotel and the airport.
The highest Ben would climb on the McGladrey Classic’s leaderboard back then, was tied for eight. His four-day cumulative performance was good only for 68th place and an $8,160 check. He failed to make it past the second stage of Q-school and he competed on the Nationwide Tour in 2012. But at that time he seemed almost relieved. “Sure, I was disappointed not to keep my tour card. But at the same time, I was happy to have a month and a half away from golf. Had I made it back onto the PGA Tour, I would have been back to playing golf almost immediately. It’s easy to get burned out when you are playing with guys of that calibre. I’m happy to be playing on the Nationwide.”
Playing on the PGA Tour is far from what many of us would think, although it’s true the top players live a glorious life with big paychecks. It’s a hard road to the top and it’s even harder to stay there because of the constant stress of travel, loneliness and especially pressure to make ends meet financially. Here’s where SportyCo platform can be at great use, helping those who struggle to finance their way to the PGA Tour, and those who struggle on the fringe.