Do you really want to be a pro golfer? Read this first
By MARK WHICKER
When Robby Shelton was a high school sophomore, he beat Jordan Spieth.
That was in the U.S. Junior Amateur, a tournament Spieth had won the year before and would win the year after.
Shelton won three Alabama state titles. He went to the University of Alabama and qualified for the U.S. Open. He got invited to the Barbasol Classic, a PGA Tour event near his home in Mobile, and finished third.
How hard is professional golf? Robby Shelton is not on the PGA Tour. Neither is he on the Web.com Tour, the Triple-A equivalent.
Shelton is playing on the Swingthought Tour, a place where you can dream as long as you pay for it. You ante up and then you play. The entry fee is normally $875 and they put it in a pot, and that’s where the purse comes from. They call such things “payback events.” And you know what the payback can be.
While everyone was marveling at the angry winds of Augusta National on Friday, the Swingthought boys were in Stone Mountain, Ga., and James White, a Georgia Tech alum, shot a 63 in the same gusts. He won the event, but only because Grant Leaver called a 2-stroke penalty on himself. And, no, it wasn’t because some TV referee called it in from his basement.
Justin Lower was the No. 1 money-winner on the Swingthought Pro Tour last year. His take was $35,000. That’s before expenses.
Tour director T.J. Johnson points out that the “heyday” of the tour provided more opportunity. That was when it was sponsored by Hooters, the popular bar-and-grill chain that is famous for its superb grouper sandwich (OK, so why do you go there?).
On Hooters in 2012, Brandon Brown won $115K and David Skinns $104K. Eight players on that tour made it to the big leagues, including Patton Kizzire and Blayne Barber.
All the Swingthought guys have a hero, but it’s not Spieth or Sergio Garcia. It’s William McGirt.
In 2007, McGirt won his first pro event. It was the Cabarrus Open on the Tar Heel Tour. The $16,000 check kept the credit card companies off his trail.
Last year he won another tournament. That was The Memorial, Jack Nicklaus’ player-pampering event near Columbus. That one paid McGirt $1.53 million and it got him into the Masters last week, where, on Friday night, he was one shot off the lead.
“If you can win my tournament, you can win this one,” Nicklaus told him. McGirt wound up 22nd. But he’ll never again have the pleasure of seeing the “2” on the very left side of the odometer fall into place, and wonder how he’ll ever buy another car.”
Web.com is the Holy Grail for the Swingthought crowd. If you’re in the top 25 money-winners on Web.com, you graduate to the PGA Tour. If not, a hunk of Web.com guys merge with PGA Tour players who are out of the Top 25, and they play their own playoff events. The Top 25 of that group gets a diploma, too.
Getting onto Web.com means surviving pre-qualifying, then three other tournaments called “stages.”
Otherwise, there’s almost no place to play. You can try the Canadian, LatinoAmerica or China tours, but the travel isn’t cheap and the odds are unfriendly. If you make Top 5 at the end of those seasons, you slip into Web.com.
Then there are the lovely Monday qualifiers. Those are 18-hole shootouts held near PGA Tour sites. The top four finishers get to play with the big boys. The other 150 or so go home.
If you do qualify, and if you finish in the Top 10 and thus get to play next week, and if you keep doing that, you beat the system. That is a flowery hallucination, not a dream.
Or you can be Stewart Hagestad.
When he went to USC, he made sure he got a business degree while he played on the golf team. Now he is a financial analyst in New York, he plays in amateur events at some of America’s oldest and leafiest courses, and on Sunday he was low amateur in the Masters. What are the chances Hagestad will be tempted to turn pro? “None,” he said.
Pro golfers are not the 1 percent. They are the 1 percent of the 1 percent. The worst player on the Swingthought Tour is better at his job than all the people you know are at theirs.
The next time your son or brother says he wants to play golf for a living, make sure you encourage him. Then encourage him to call Robby Shelton.