The Reality of Turning Pro: Diving into professional golf
Every kid who has ever held a putter in his or her hands has dreamed of holing a putt to win the Masters, or the U.S. Women’s Open, or the Ryder Cup. It’s not likely that anyone has imagined making that 10-footer to put gas in their car, or fund their next tournament, or even keep their career alive.
The life of an elite professional, sure, it may be glamorous and all, but the journey to get there is usually anything but. Instead of luxury resorts, private jets and courtesy cars, think budget hotels, interstate highways and thousand-dollar entry fees.
That’s why, when speaking candidly, a veteran of the industry offered this advice to players looking to chart a path to professional golf stardom: “You don’t want to do this.”
The reality is, however, that many do. Each year, hundreds of aspiring tour pros dive into the play-for-pay ranks, still buoyed by the vision of someday sinking that big putt or cashing that life-changing check. A select few are destined for the fast track (see: Collin Morikawa and Patty Tavatanakit) while the rest prepare for the grind, ready to relish a road filled with obstacles and detours but also, hopefully, some good breaks and a little luck.
Not everyone will make it – in fact, the majority won’t – but as poet Emily Dickinson once wrote: The possible’s slow fuse is lit by the imagination.
“Once you set your mind to something, you want to accomplish that something,” said Joshua Sedeno, an Alabama alum who turned pro in 2019 and has status on PGA Tour Latinoamerica, “and for me, when I picked golf, the PGA Tour was the end goal.”
Added Ana Belac, a three-time All-American at Duke who graduated last year and now plays on the LPGA: “There are times where you’re like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But then you remember you’re living your childhood dream.”
And to fully realize that dream? There is no secret code, no foolproof plan. It takes hard work, discipline, lots of birdies (and money) – and even then, there are no guarantees.
So, dive in headfirst, swim hard and pray you don’t sink.
MAKING THE CALL
When it came time to become a professional golfer, Philip Barbaree was ready. He was a standout junior, setting the AJGA’s 72-hole scoring record and earning the circuit’s Rolex Player of the Year in 2015 while also capturing the 2015 U.S. Junior Amateur with a record-setting comeback. At LSU, he didn’t win, but he posted eight top-5 finishes in 44 career starts and finished with a 72.27 career scoring average, fourth best in program history.
“Ideally, before you turn pro, you want to win at every stage,” said Barbaree, who turned pro midway through his fifth season with the Tigers last winter. “Even though I didn’t really live up to my potential in college, I still felt like I had what it takes in the tank.”
Professional golf is different from most other major sports in that it doesn’t hold a draft. There are no executives scrutinizing prospects’ statistics and other measurables. So, for players who didn’t win at the prolific rate of Jon Rahm and Leona Maguire or who don’t swing it as fast as Matthew Wolff and Maria Fassi, they’re not reliant on a pick to play the PGA Tour or LPGA; it’s up to them, and only them, to earn their spot.
Still, it’s important that players make educated decisions when choosing golf as a career. That includes asking themselves the tough questions:
Why do I want to turn pro, and when?
How am I going to get to the PGA Tour or LPGA, and how long am I going to try?
How am I going to get better, and make money?
What do I have in common with the best players in the world?
Recent history tells us that, most often, the more decorated the college player, the better chance of securing one of those coveted jobs. It’s why the underdogs, when they succeed, are so celebrated. Of the top 200 players in the Official World Golf Ranking, 58 of them turned professional in 2013 or later (after the shuttering of PGA Tour Q-School) and played at least one year of college golf. That group includes 57 Division I players, 42 of whom played for a Power 5 school, and 41 All-Americans, including 21 first-team selections. (Eight of those first-teamers are currently among the top 18 in the world.)
If you were a first-team All-American in the past 10 years, you’ve averaged $4,058,862 over 42.63 PGA Tour starts with 10 players over the $100,000-per-start mark. That far outpaces third-team honorees, who averaged $1,225,844.57 over 18.91 events with just one player (Xander Schauffele) making six-figures per start.
The women’s side is unique in that most elite talents skip college altogether – all but five of the top 25 players in the Rolex Rankings, to be exact. But looking at All-Americans from the past 10 years, 31 first-teamers had LPGA cards this past season compared to just seven honorable mentions. And since 2004-05, 29 first-team All-Americans have earned at least $1 million in career earnings compared to just one honorable mention (Caroline Masson).
“When agents are looking at players, just like equipment companies, for the most part they’re looking at All-Americans and winning or competing at a high level,” said one agent with over 15 years of experience working with PGA Tour players. “Very rarely can you find a PGA Tour player who’s been out there for a while who wasn’t an All-American. There’s always a diamond in rough, but the majority of first-team All-Americans have better success than even the honorable mentions.”
While there are other intangibles – toughness, competitiveness, the ability to handle pressure and adversity – nothing replaces knowing how to win. In the past 10 years, there have been 126 different former college players who have won on the PGA Tour – 99 of them captured at least one college title. That’s why Phil Mickelson decided to return to school after winning the PGA Tour’s Tucson Open as an amateur. He wanted to keep beating the guys he was going to be competing against in the future and as a pro be able to look them in the eyes on a Sunday and know that he beat them for four years in college.
Aspiring pros need to have that kind of perspective to know when – and if – they’re ready, or at least have people in their inner circle who do.
“You need good people in your corner,” said Wilson Furr, a first-team All-SEC selection for Alabama last season who signed with Mac Barnhardt’s Sea Island-based Rock Sports Group and inked deals with Srixon/Cleveland Golf, BankPlus and Mississippi Bank. “You don’t need yes-men, which I think is a big problem in golf. You need people who are going to tell you the truth about a) the state of your game, and b) what you have to do if you’re gonna move up and play on the PGA Tour. … This game is pretty humbling, but if you have people giving you that information before it kicks you in the face, I think that’s very helpful.”
Furr relocated to Birmingham, Alabama, after college. He could’ve moved back to Jackson, Mississippi, and in with his parents, like many young pros do to save money, but he couldn’t pass up a free membership at Shoal Creek Country Club, which welcomes pros from in-state colleges at no cost.
Other players will stay close to where they graduated, especially if they can take advantage of their school’s practice facilities. Chandler Phillips, a former first-team All-American at Texas A&M, originally moved to The Woodlands, Texas, with teammate Cameron Champ, but after Champ got engaged, Phillips ventured back to College Station, where he rents a room from a buddy, who purchased the four-bedroom house solely for football season. Belac still lives in Durham, North Carolina, so she can frequently meet with Blue Devils coach Dan Brooks, who is her swing coach.
At the end of the day, it’s all about what makes a player most comfortable in an uncomfortable sport. Ben Griffin, an All-American at North Carolina who graduated in 2018, passed up a $30,000 equipment deal so that he could play his first season in Canada with familiar equipment. He finished eighth on the money list and got into the final stage of Q-School. He’s also since moved from Sea Island, Georgia, back to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to be in a cozier environment.
“I think too many people come out of college and when they hit the pros, they make too many changes assuming that they have to,” said JS Kang, president of Epoch Sports Group, who manages Lizette Salas, Mariah Stackhouse and Lindsey Weaver, among others. “The fewer the changes the better because it’s their skill that got them there, so why make all these changes?”
Players must weigh the pros and cons of everything before making the jump. That includes whether to sign an agent or not. While it may not sound attractive to have to pay out 20% of a $100,000 equipment deal, there are many benefits to having an agent that many players probably overlook.
Sure, agents can help secure sponsors, from equipment deals to corporate partnerships, and maybe a handful of exemptions out of the gates. But they also can serve as travel and booking agents, publicists and mentors. Most importantly, they just understand professional golf, at all levels, and the pitfalls and hurdles of trying to get to the top.
“These young kids and their families, quickly they get hit by a sledgehammer when they don’t have an agent walking them through the process,” another agent said. “It’s not always come out and get some PGA Tour sponsor exemptions like Rahm and then you’re rolling. How unlikely is that? The best agents always have a strategy, whether it’s scheduling or caddie or coach or living arrangements or whatever. The good agents know how to adapt on a consistent basis.
“There’s not just one road. If this doesn’t work, we pivot and go here. If that doesn’t work, we pivot and go there.”
CHARTING YOUR PATH
Professional golf is sport’s ultimate labyrinth.
“There are 20 different avenues you can take and a thousand different tournaments,” Sedeno says.
Want to play the PGA Tour? Unless you’re getting into events via sponsor exemptions or Monday qualifiers (and finishing well), you first need to get to the Korn Ferry Tour, which hands out 50 PGA Tour cards each season. How do you do that? Well, there are Monday qualifiers and, of course, Q-School, which consists of as many as four stages, depending on your status, and culminates with the low 40 finishers and ties earning guaranteed starts. There are also Q-Schools for PGA Tour Latinoamerica and PGA Tour Canada, which offer Korn Ferry Tour cards to their top earners.
You don’t have status on any of those tours? Try going to Europe, where you’ll need to either play Q-School or go through the Challenge Tour to get on the DP World Tour, formerly the European Tour.
If the LPGA is your target, there are three stages of Q-School, with second stage earning you at least Symetra Tour status. Europe has a similar structure with the Ladies European Tour and LET Access Series.
And then there are the mini-tours, state opens and pro-ams, which might not offer direct pathways up but provide players opportunities to pad their bankrolls to fund Q-Schools and Mondays.
Alejandro Tosti, a 25-year-old and 2018 Florida grad, captured four titles on the SwingThought Tour this year, finished in the top 4 in 14 of 18 starts and racked up $96,376.51 in prize money. Sam Stevens, who graduated from Oklahoma State in 2018, won $72,838.29 in nine events on the All Pro Tour last summer. They are very much the outliers, though. Exorbitant entry fees on the mini-tours make it easy to rack up debt if you’re not playing well.
“It’s almost like gambling on yourself,” Griffin said.
But for those without tour status, the mini-tours can be a necessity. With most Q-Schools taking place late in the year, players need to not only make money during the summer months but stay competitively sharp. When Alabama alum Kenzie Wright turned pro in early June, she didn’t have the ability to slot into an LPGA or Symetra schedule, so she entered the Texas Women’s State Open in Garland, Texas, and won by four shots, turning her $300 entry fee into $17,500. That funded her six-event schedule on the Women’s All Pro Tour, where she made $9,076.25. She advanced out of Stage I of LPGA Q-School and now has some Symetra status for next year.
“I’ll miss out on the first two events, but I should be good after that,” said Wright, who is hoping to do what Belac did last year: win the Symetra money list and earn her LPGA card.
Ana Pelaez, a second-team All-American last season at South Carolina, shot 5 over on the final day at Stage II to miss out on advancing to the two-week Q-Series, where the top 45 and ties will receive LPGA membership. She has Symetra status, but after moving in with her grandmother in Malaga, Spain, this summer, she decided to focus on the Ladies European Tour, playing three events on sponsor exemptions, including the season finale in her hometown, where she tied for 11th and cashed 11,145 euros.
She is entered in LET Q-School, a two-stage, 162-hole marathon that begins Dec. 9 in Cartagena, Spain. The top 20 finishers and ties get full LET status for 2022.
“If I get my LET card, my mind and my heart are telling me to do LET for a year, experience life on tour and then go back to the U.S. and try Q-School again,” Pelaez said. “If I don’t, then I might go to Symetra and try to get into the top 10 and get my LPGA card.” (Nos. 11-30 in Symetra money are exempt into Q-Series.)
Alex del Rey, another Spaniard who graduated from Arizona State two summers ago, doesn’t have the option of playing European Tour Q-School, which was canceled for the second straight year because of the pandemic.
“It’s been a nightmare,” said del Rey, who will play on the Challenge Tour next year before trying Korn Ferry Tour Q-School.
Del Rey has been lucky, though. Through his agency, Hambric Sports, and the Spanish National Team, which sponsors about 20 Spanish pros, he was able to secure more than a dozen exemptions between the European and Challenge tours this year. It started in April, when he got a call two days before the week of the Austrian Open that he was being invited into the field. He ended up playing six of the next seven weeks on the European Tour, notching one top-10 and three other top-30s.
However, with the European Tour creating a safety net in June for its members who finish outside the top 110 in the Race to Dubai, del Rey, with no prospect of earning his European Tour card as a non-member, had to pivot. He secured his nine maximum exemptions on the Challenge Tour and earned more starts with three top-10s, including a T-10 at the Swiss Challenge, where he fired a second-round 58. He then got into the developmental tour’s final two limited-field events by finishing 56th on the points list.
In 13 Challenge Tour starts, del Rey earned just 30,640 euros. The tour’s top earner netted 222,628.40 euros.
“People compare [the Challenge Tour] to Korn Ferry, but the money we make isn’t even close,” del Rey said. “It’s insane to watch – I’ve played with European Tour winners out there, guys who are 40 years old and still grinding, and I’m like, ‘How do you do it?’ You definitely don’t want to be out here for a long time because you can’t make a living out here.”
The same can be said of most developmental tours in the U.S., which is why many players are chasing Monday qualifiers on the PGA Tour, Korn Ferry Tour and LPGA. For players with limited status on those tours, it’s a chance to play well and re-shuffle into better status. Though he got his spot in the KFT’s Veritex Bank Championship last April via an exemption, Phillips turned a T-5 finish into 11 more starts.
“All you gotta do is get in one,” Phillips said.
For players without status, Mondays can be a way to earn enough non-member points to earn their cards. For example, on the PGA Tour, non-members can get full status for the following season by equaling the number of FedExCup points as No. 125 on that season’s points list. If a non-member earns the equivalent of No. 200 in FedExCup points, he qualifies for the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, where he’ll have three events to earn one of 25 PGA Tour cards.
“You always hear people talk about like, ‘Oh, those suck,’” Furr said of Monday qualifiers. “But the way I see it is you shoot 80 and you just get in your car and leave. Yeah, you lose the money, but it’s not like detrimental, and then if you win, you can change your life.”
Mickey DeMorat, who graduated from Liberty in 2018, made his pro debut at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock, where he tied for 56th to earn $25,426, which funded a long stretch of Monday qualifiers. He estimated he played almost 30 of them between the PGA and Korn Ferry tours during his first year and a half as a pro – and he got through four of them, including the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship in 2019.
So, after playing 36 events on the Korn Ferry Tour during its recent super-season and losing his card, DeMorat knew what to do.
“I made sure that I was going to sign up for all the PGA Tour Mondays that I could play in,” said DeMorat, who teed it up in four this fall, including one in Cancun, Mexico.
In his final Monday of the year, DeMorat shot 63 to qualify for last month’s RSM Classic. Before the round, he had to buy a couple of sleeves of Titleist balls because he was running low. When he arrived at Sea Island the next day, he made sure to load up on free product, including stopping by the TaylorMade truck to repair his 9-iron, get his clubs re-gripped and pick up some gloves, hats, new wedges and a backup driver head. (Oh, the benefits of being a PGA Tour player for a week!)
He then opened the tournament with another 63 before finding himself on the cut line with three holes to play in Round 2.
“My mind was just racing,” DeMorat said. “If I miss the cut after shooting 63, I’m going to miss out on all this money and all the perks that come with making a cut in a Tour event.”
Luckily for DeMorat, he got up and down from a bunker on his final hole to get into the weekend on the number. He ended up tying for 47th and earning $ 19,728, and he’ll be exempt for every PGA Tour pre-qualifier (the one before the Monday) for the rest of the season. Perhaps best of all, he received 9.25 non-member FedExCup points.
Only about 85 more to go for a ticket to KFT Finals.
WHAT IT COSTS
Furr looks at his professional golf career like a business.
“You’re starting a company,” Furr explained, “and so companies that start, they gotta buy stuff. It’s not your money, it’s your business’ money, and you spend it accordingly to how you’re gonna grow the business.”
For Furr, his company incurs a variety of expenses. While he doesn’t pay for a place to play and practice, he still has basic living costs such as rent, utilities, gas, food and other personal bills. He needs to budget for his swing coach and workout programs, which he gets sent about once a quarter. (Other pros will pay for trainers, physios and mental coaches.) And that’s all before you get to the litany of tournament-related expenses (i.e., entry fees, caddies, yardage books, practice rounds for mini-tour events, flights, hotels and rental cars), which Furr says can easily range from $50,000-$70,000 per year to play a full schedule of tournaments and qualifiers.
Tosti, from Argentina and modest means, says going from being funded as an amateur by his university and country’s national program to playing on essentially his own dime was a challenge.
“My parents were not able to support me, so it was really stressful in the beginning to play golf under a lot of pressure,” Tosti said. “It was something that I was not ready for.”
Tosti, though, has become a pro at Microsoft Excel, where he diligently keeps track of all of his tournament expenses. This year, Tosti played 32 tournaments and five one-day qualifiers. His total expenses for those events were just north of $70,000, with about $38,000 going toward entry fees and tour memberships. (That doesn’t include living expenses, though Tosti hasn’t paid rent since his lease expired in July; he’s spent most off weeks with friends, family and the occasional Airbnb.)
“You quickly start to realize how much each shot costs,” Tosti said. “Those missed shots can add up at the end of the year.”
Will Mansfield, a Washington alum who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, breaks down yearly expenses for an international-tour member like this:
• $30,000 in living expenses ($2,500 per month)
• $12,000 for coaching ($250 per hour once a week)
• $24,000 to play a 12-event schedule in Canada or Latin America ($2,000 per event)
“That’s $66,000 right there,” Mansfield said. “But if you really want to make a run at it, play all the other tournaments you want to play, you’re looking at $80,000-$100,000 a year if you want to be set.”
Tours with larger schedules, such as the KFT and LPGA, can easily cost six-figures to play. Unlike on the mini-tours, where caddies are optional, loopers become mandatory on the upper circuits – and they’re not cheap. If you’re paying a caddie $200 per day and get to an event on Monday and make the cut, that’s $1,400 before factoring in a percentage of the winnings. Last season on KFT, DeMorat called in a friend to carry his bag for the final 15 events and scored a deal – only $100 per day, plus 5-, 7- and 10-percent cuts for making the cut, a top-10 and win, respectively.
It’s no surprise that del Rey carried his bag in every Challenge Tour event this year, or that Belac had her mother fly in from Slovenia two summers ago to loop for a few Symetra events.
“I bought her a pushcart so she wouldn’t have to carry,” said Belac, who paid out with nice dinners and trips to nail salons.
There are other ways to cut costs, mostly with travel. Many mini-tour players will drive to tournaments, which is what Wright did all summer. She and Arizona State grad Olivia Mehaffey carpooled to three WAPT events in Wright’s Chevrolet Equinox, and when they had to fly to Palm Springs, California, for Stage I of Q-School, they split an Airbnb and frequented Cheesecake Factory. Host housing is popular, too, especially on the LPGA.
Tosti scored a free room for the season opener of PGA Tour Latinoamerica in Buenos Aires, Argentina, staying with his friend’s brother, who lives on the fourth hole of Nordelta Golf Club. It was a huge relief, considering he’ll spend about $1,700 in airfare for the first two Latin events, the second being in Chile, before flying back to Florida on Jan. 18 for back-to-back KFT Monday qualifiers (he reached lifetime Platinum status for American Airlines earlier this year).
Sedeno got creative with his air travel to last month’s PGA Tour Latinoamerica Q-School in Mazatlán, Mexico. Instead of forking over $2,400 in flights for he and his caddie out of Phoenix, he saved about $800 by flying home to Sacramento for a few days and then down to Mazatlán through Tijuana.
“When you’re from a working-class family – my dad is a firefighter – you save wherever you can,” Sedeno said.
Lauren Stephenson, who has played on the LPGA ever since leaving Alabama midseason in early 2019, reduces her expenses by having her mother do her accounting for free. Stephenson is still mindful of what’s coming in and going out, though, and was stunned when she saw how much she had to pay in taxes on the $74,598 check for her T-12 at this year’s Evian Championship in France.
“I looked at the receipt and it was like $13,000,” Stephenson said. “That hurt.”
Sticker shock is a frequent occurrence in pro golf, especially at Q-School, where players shell out thousands per entry fee. Here’s a look at what certain tours charge for their qualifying tournaments:
• Korn Ferry Tour: $2,950 when starting at pre-qualifying (plus another $2,800 if you advance); $5,250 when starting at first stage; $4,750 when starting at second stage; $4,250 when starting at final stage.
• PGA Tour Latinoamerica: $2,000
• PGA Tour Canada: $2,500
• LPGA: $2,500 when starting at Stage I (plus another $3,000 if you advance); $4,000 when starting at Stage II (plus another $1,500 if you advance); $5,500 (or $2,500 for exempt members) when starting at Q-Series.
• Ladies European Tour: 1,275 euros for both stages.
The Monday qualifiers aren’t cheap, either. PGA and Korn Ferry tour Mondays can run anywhere from $500 for non-members, most of whom go through pre-qualifying ($250, plus the difference if you advance), to $100 for members. LPGA Mondays are $500 for non-members and $200 for members. And most of the time you’re adding practice rounds on top of that number, such as the time DeMorat played back-to-back KFT Mondays in South Florida two years ago and dished out $90 a pop.
But typically, the biggest per-tournament expense comes on the mini-tours – tours such as the APT, GPro, SwingThought, Florida Elite, Golden State, Outlaw and Dakotas, which hold multi-round events. While larger tours have more reasonable entry fees around $200 per event, it’s common for a mini-tour event to charge players $1,000 or more to enter. For example: the APT, which ran 13 events with at least $20,000 to each winner last season, charges $1,299 for non-members to enter and $895 for members, who had to pay the membership fee ($1,600 or $850 for recent college grads).
In most APT events, a top-35 will get players at least their entry fees back. Phillips was 15th in money last season at $22,828.75 in six events. It’s not terrible money, but if you subtract the taxes, tournament fees, practice rounds and travel, you’re likely pocketing less than half that – and then you have your other bills to pay. That’s not sustainable for very long.
“I had four top-10s in a row in 60-player fields or more on a tour here in Arizona and made a $1,200 profit,” Sedeno said.
Of course, not every tour player (excluding those playing for flushed PGA Tour purses) makes money, either. A lot of them struggle just to break even. Here are some estimated breakeven numbers, based on most recent money lists, on various tours when considering costs just for that tour and travel (and those darn taxes):
• Korn Ferry Tour: 50th for super-season ($213,237)
• PGA Tour Latinoamerica: 15th ($22,798; eight-event season)
• PGA Tour Canada: 15th (about $30,400)
• Challenge Tour: 30th (55,802.30 euros)
• LPGA: 110th ($106,847)
• Symetra: 25th ($56,715)
• Ladies European Tour: 40th (59,146.81 euros)
“This is not fun,” said Mike Dunphy, player development manager for Srixon/Cleveland Golf, who has been around the game for decades. “It’s fun when you make it, yeah, but this is about living inexpensively, carrying cash, sleeping hard and traveling hard, having to sacrifice for no guarantees of anything.”
FUNDING THE DREAM
As far as college resumes go, it doesn’t get much better than Natalie Srinivasan’s. The Furman product ended her four-year career two springs ago with three All-America honors and the 2020 Annika Award, given to the best player in Division I. Surely, she could count on some sponsorship dollars upon turning pro.
“Sponsors?” Srinivasan responded. “Yeah, my dad.”
Srinivasan, who has since turned some exemptions into full Symetra status for next year, still doesn’t have any paying sponsors, though she does get free equipment in Ping clubs and Titleist balls. Wright was able to secure a deal with Clubby Seltzers, but she still finds herself buying her clothes from PGA Tour Superstore and using her college clubs.
While more sponsors are starting to invest in the women’s game, the meaningful money is on the LPGA, and even still, the money lags well behind the men. The best two to three men’s college graduates each year are turning pro as millionaires, but the top women’s grads likely aren’t covering their expenses unless they are on the LPGA. If about 15 men are getting guaranteed equipment money over three-plus years (and another dozen are signing product deals with incentives) in each graduating class, it’s rare that even the nation’s best female will make five-figures on an equipment deal. In Srinivasan’s case, it was zero figures.
Belac and Stephenson, who are both represented by Sterling Sports, have been fortunate to accrue several sponsors since joining the LPGA, but for those still chasing the LPGA, they’ve been known to supplement their income with side jobs, including working at golf courses, serving as personal trainers or nutritionists, giving lessons, selling autographs or photos, and even selling makeup and skincare products.
Wright has earned some decent cash working for Backswing Golf Events, which connects female professional golfers with corporate and charity golf events across the country. She did her first event last month in Oklahoma, hitting drives for groups on a hole and trying to get them to donate. Backswing does more than 600 events per year, and Wright says the group chat is filled with pros.
“They definitely take care of the girls,” Wright said. “There are some girls who have played golf and now do it [Backswing] full-time.”
On the men’s side, sure, there are more developmental-tour players with sponsors, but that doesn’t mean they all have major endorsements. DeMorat didn’t sign his first deal until he reached the Korn Ferry Tour, when TaylorMade came to him with a contract. Sedeno has a few sponsors, including Troon Golf, but he’s recently had to do some part-time caddying for extra cash. He’s heard of other players who work as valet drivers, yoga instructors, food-delivery drivers, bar bouncers and even one who is a fishing-and-hunting guide. Mansfield, who has one sponsor (Orrion Farms, a horse breeder), has worked a couple of jobs and at one point started a GoFundMe to raise money.
“Guys will be picking balls so they can hit free range balls one week and then beating some of the best players in the world the next week,” DeMorat said.
Sedeno also earns money by playing in pro-ams, where pros can often make money without paying an entry fee. He has done 10 pro-ams in the past year, and he recently played one in Birmingham where a member, needing a pro partner, flew him in and covered his expenses, and he made a quick check. Stephenson still does a few pro-ams a year, including events put on by Golf Fore Africa, a nonprofit started by Hall of Famer Betsy King that raises money to provide drinking water to people in rural Africa.
Del Rey participates in a handful, as well, and said that between back-to-back Challenge Tour events in Spain last season, he heard of a bunch of Danish players who flew private to Denmark for a pro-am, got paid handsomely and flew right back.
And what about investors? They’re out there. It’s great if players can receive financial backing via donations, but in some cases, they are essentially selling shares of themselves. For example: One player sold 25 shares of himself to investors for $2,000 apiece to cover $50,000 of his yearly expenses. The only problem was that any prize money he got, he was paying back out.
“Golf is already hard enough,” Sedeno said, “but now you have shareholders to keep happy; that’s not a very fun feeling.”
Added Phillips: “I have some buddies who have some deals with people, but I ain’t getting into that. I have one buddy where he can’t even make any money; I don’t even know what percentage he gets to keep, and if you’re doing that and playing mini-tour events? You’re done.”
THE HOW – AND HOW LONG
Not that he didn’t love his parents and sisters, but Barbaree couldn’t wait to move to Dallas after a few months of living at home in Shreveport, Louisiana. Not only would he be able to get more direct flights and join Maridoe Golf Club, which boasts a large stable of tour pros, but he’d also have his own apartment, be independent and develop a better routine.
That’s the advice he got from his childhood friend, Sam Burns, a two-time PGA Tour winner and top-20 player in the world: Be structured with your time and have a set schedule that you religiously do, as specific as when you’re going to wake up in the morning.
“Whenever you’re in college, you basically have a schedule set for you and there are a lot of people telling you what to do,” Barbaree said. “Now, it’s up to you, and it’s easy without a set schedule or practice plan to go about your days and at the end of the day look back and ask yourself, ‘Did I really get anything done today?’ The best players in the world, they have a plan, and they stick to it, and it’s very, very detailed, and that’s what makes them the best. It’s no accident that they’re out there.”
Srinivasan understands. For almost a year, she struggled adjusting to post-college life. It didn’t help that she turned pro in the middle of a pandemic, but even responsibilities such as entering tournaments, booking travel and deciding when and how long to practice were initially challenging.
“It gives me anxiety just thinking about it,” Srinivasan said.
But by this past summer, the stress had lessened. She had grooved a nice routine for off-weeks, one that included set gym and practice time, plus long walks – or flights, as her brother and dad are pilots. Tournament weeks also got easier. She still had to get to events early to learn the courses, but she’s proud of herself for getting better at securing morning practice-round times via the Symetra’s Southwest Airlines-like reservation system.
Getting better is a common characteristic of successful pro golfers. In this play-for-pay world, it’s easy to get caught up in dollar signs. But while money is essential in the journey to the big-time, focusing on it can be a detriment.
“You have to have the mindset of just going out and enjoying the process,” DeMorat said. “I don’t think you can look at the guys who have made millions of dollars and think, oh, when I make it there that’s when I’ll feel like I did something.”
When Furr made his pro debut at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines after getting through sectional qualifying, he beat just one player. “Pretty much dead last,” he said. He quickly discovered that he was holding back with his driver and that he couldn’t aim his putter. He’s since gained 20 yards and started to string together better putting weeks, almost canning an eagle in a playoff to Monday-qualify for the Sanderson Farms Championship in September.
“Being on the PGA Tour is cool, but what’s cooler than that is staying out there, and the way you stay out there is you get really good at golf,” Furr said. “So, no matter where you are, if you’re really good at golf, you’ll play fine. Don’t worry about what tour you’re on or how much money you’re making, if you’re better at golf, then things are inevitable. If you’re not better at golf, it’s not going to happen.
“Don’t get caught up in your own narrative. This isn’t a story, just go play, and then let them write the story afterward.”
Many players won’t get a fairytale ending. They’ll try for years and years before they run out of money. Some will still hang on, fundraising harder or racking up debt, while others will realize that they can’t beat the best players in the world and hang it up.
The key for young pros is to play like they have nothing to fall back on, but they also need to be prepared to reassess their goals after a few years, when the sponsorship money dries up and they still don’t have a PGA Tour or LPGA card.
The statistics paint a clear picture: Tour pros are getting younger, and they’re leaving those who spend more than a few years in professional golf without making it fewer opportunities to do so.
• If you’re a top 200 player in the world, played college golf and graduated in 2013 or later, it’s taken you 2.84 years to make it to the PGA Tour or European Tour. For current top-50 players meeting those criteria, it’s 1.71 years. A few of those players have lost their cards, but no one hasn’t re-earned them.
• Of the top 25 finishers in KFT points in 2020-21, the average year for turning pro was 2015, but seven turned pro in 2018 or later.
• This year’s KFT Q-School final stage produced 49 players who earned guaranteed starts with an average age of 27.43. That included 13 players who had turned pro within the past year, four of whom finished in the top 10. Twenty-three of the 49 were age 25 or younger.
“If you want to have a PGA Tour card, you better have the ability to take another man’s job because they love those jobs,” Dunphy said. “They love those jobs and will do whatever they can to keep them.”
Griffin figured he’d be one of those players who called it quits at the proper time. He enjoyed some success early, winning a PGA Tour Canada event in 2018, but he failed multiple times to earn his full KFT card. After missing the cut in the PGA Tour Latinoamerica’s Mexican Open last March, Griffin retired with 35 career world-ranked professional starts under his belt.
“I had money at the time, but it was costing more and more to pay for rent and all that other stuff, and it basically got to the point where I’m like, it’s going to be a long process for me to get on the PGA Tour in terms of expenses,” Griffin said. “I just didn’t enjoy golf anymore.”
Griffin, an econ major in college, started working for his dad at a small real estate company in Chapel Hill and soon applied to be a financial mortgage loan officer. He passed his licensing test and started his new job on May 2.
But as fate would have it, Griffin was drawn back to the game in July. He met some guys from Highland Springs Country Club in Missouri, site of the KFT’s Price Cutter Charity Championship, and they talked him into playing the event’s Monday qualifier in late July. Griffin took off work and made it through.
“I missed the cut, but it was still enough proof that I should be playing golf and not working,” said Griffin, who spent the next month finding some sponsors, including multi-year deal backing from investment firm Lord Abbett, and shaking off the rust. Thankfully for Griffin, it wasn’t much compared to someone like Tom Lovelady, a 2016 Alabama grad who played a season on the PGA Tour before stepping away for more than a year to work in sales at Discovery Land Company. (Lovelady also un-retired this summer, Monday’d into two Tour events and made it to final stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School before settling for conditional status.)
The comeback proved successful for Griffin, who cruised through Q-School this fall. His T-29 finish at the final stage last month earned him eight guaranteed starts on the Korn Ferry Tour next season, and as he stood on the veranda at The Landings Club in Savannah, Georgia, having just accomplished a career-first, his smile was a mile wide.
Griffin’s career had received a pardon. More so, he had earned one. It’s a new start, but still a continuation of what he’s been doing the last three years: trying to make a living by playing golf. Just like thousands of other across the world, all headed up stream.
So, for now, he’ll just keep swimming.