What it takes to go pro in golf
Published on Thursday, May. 09, 2013 12:01PM EDT Last updated on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 11:37AM EST
(The following article first appeared in the July 2012 edition of Golf Canada magazine)
David Hearn has heard all of golf ’s mini tour horror stories. Canada’s top-ranked golfer knows all about the minor leagues, having come through the Canadian and Asian Tours, spending six seasons on the triple-A Web.com Tour (formerly the Nationwide Tour) before working his way back to the PGA Tour for a second time last year, and retaining those playing privileges for 2012.
Hearn lived the long road trips, once driving from Florida to Houston, to Phoenix and back. The 32-year-old from Brantford, Ont. has heard all about young professional golfers sleeping on couches, or living out of their cars.
Adam Hadwin has heard the same stories of barely surviving the path to golfing glory.
Billed as Canada’s next big thing after a spectacular 2011 that included a tie for fourth at his hometown Canadian Open in Vancouver and $440,752 in earnings through just five events to almost earn a PGA Tour card off sponsor exemptions, Hadwin saw some of it first hand during two seasons on the Canadian Tour. You know – players scrambling just to make it to the next event, or loading up on bananas at the first tee because that’s all they had to eat for the day.
Jon Mills, who has two seasons on the PGA Tour amid seven on the Web.com Tour, is also familiar with the survival stories and long road trips associated with life in golf’s minor leagues. Another Ontario native, Mills, who ruined clothes driving a beat up Neon without air conditioning through steamy American Midwest summers, remembers playing with a guy at a Canadian Tour event by day, then seeing him tending a bar later that night, and hearing nightmares about mini tours where organizers took off before winnings were paid out.
Yes, Hearn, Hadwin, and Mills have that in common. They’ve heard all the tales about life at the lower levels of pro golf. They’ve lived them. Thankfully for them though, they don’t see it as such a bad thing.
“The hardship story is overplayed,” says Hearn, who won almost $900,000 last year and only retained his card by five places on the money list. “It’s a challenge but most good players like a challenge and that’s part of developing – getting used to the challenge.”
Hearn acknowledged how hard it can be financially when young golfers are starting out, but added that the majority of professional golfers have to go through it, and start on lower developmental tours.
“The hardest part is the unknown of what comes next, but I always liked the opportunity,” he says. “I never thought of it as a negative. It shows you who you are as a player, that’s for sure.”
Hearn pointed out that the tough times in the minor league are all about perspective. Driving for days at a time and searching out the cheapest possible hotel may seem like a tough existence when compared to the PGA Tour perch of luxury courtesy cars and country club dining, but it was no big deal coming straight out of college, eager to start a golf career.
“You’ve got to look at it like you’re 21 years old when you get out of college and get on Tour,” he says. “You don’t have money to begin with. I never looked at it as a hardship, I just looked at it as part of the journey. I think people go through a lot more hardships than that. Besides, it’s a choice. It’s not like someone told me that’s what I had to do.”
If there’s a common thread among Hearn, Hadwin, and Mills’ memories of the early years – and Hadwin, in just his third full season and playing the Web.com Tour, is admittedly just getting started – it’s in avoiding some of the worst stories. The tales of guys shaking over five-foot par putts on a Friday knowing that they might not have enough gas money to get to the tour’s the next stop if they didn’t make the cut that week.
Yes, they cut costs, traveling in small groups to save expenses – Hearn would drive long-time Canadian Tour player Wes Heffernan on the east coast of the US, while Heffernan would return the favor when the tour moved left to right across Canada later in the summer – and split hotel rooms where there wasn’t host housing that they could take advantage of. But, they tried to ensure that it was never at the expense of their ability to perform on the course.
For Hadwin, that was important enough to delay his first real season on tour. After finishing at the University of Louisville as an honorable mention All-American in 2009, Hadwin stayed closer to home to play the Vancouver Golf Tour, a smaller series of one- and two-day events, rather than chase a Canadian Tour card. He didn’t want to stress over every penny on a tour where he estimates it can cost $1,000 to $1,200 per week just to keep playing, and you typically need to finish inside the top-30 just to make that back.
Instead, with a $2,000 loan from his dad that paid for entry fees, Hadwin built up his bank account and his reputation by winning locally. The latter made it easier for him to put together a group of six local investors for his first year on the Canadian Tour, selling his upcoming season like a hot stock tip, and to attract Belfor Property Restorations as a shirt sponsor – all of which made it easier to move to Arizona, where he would practice more, finish top-10 his first three events, win another, and end 2010 as Rookie of the Year.
“The money allowed me to kind of relax and play and not worry,” said Hadwin, adding that he was able to pay back both his dad and his investors right away. “It’s hard if you don’t have cash behind you, you’re thinking you’ve got to make the cut to make a little money to be able to afford to play the next week. I can look back and say, in the end, I could have done it myself. But, who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t have played as well not knowing I had that in the bank. You hear stories all the time of great players capable of great things, but they just run out of cash and can’t do it any more. I saw it on the Canadian Tour a bit – guys eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner just to save money.”
This is all fine, Mills says, as long as it’s not at the expense of performance. Unlike his brother, who struggled to make ends meet on the Canadian Tour, or an old college friend, who once chased mini tour money until his car died in Florida, selling it for scrap metal to get back, Mills went from the NCAA to the Web.com Tour with a sponsor.
“Having the money early on takes a lot of pressure off of you,” says Mills, who ended up on the Canadian Tour the following season. “You’re not going week-to-week just trying to pay your expenses. Going through that and seeing that with my brother a bit, I find it impossible to play your best golf when you are worrying about those other things.”
All three Canadian pros were quick to point out that doesn’t mean being frivolous. It’s about being professional, running things like a business, with their game as the asset.
“It can be a catch 22 at times,” Hearn says. “You definitely want enough money to afford yourself the opportunities that you need, but, at the same time, it’s an important time of your life to be hungry to get to the next level, to want to compete – to know that ‘I don’t have a lot of money, and I need to play well to get to that next level.’ It motivates you a little bit.”
For Hadwin, it meant selling stakes in a season. For Hearn, it meant investing first-year winnings into flying over for Asian Tour Q School. For all three, it’s about finding the balance between expenses and expensive, without hurting their chances to win.
In the old days, that may have meant sleeping three to a room, or sharing a long car ride from Alberta to Winnipeg. Hadwin, who admittedly spent more than the minimum on the Canadian Tour, was still splitting a room on his first two Web.com stops in South America, but planned to fly to all of the North American tournaments. And, after losing his clubs during a multiple-stop marathon trip to a PGA Tour event last season, he won’t be as hesitant to spend a few hundred dollars more to avoid a handful of layovers.
“I’m not staying in 4-star hotels and eating $200 dinners,” Hadwin says. “I’m still using Priceline to find cheap hotels and rental cars and all that. I just won’t be driving to events. I would rather fly two hours than drive six or seven. But those are things you’ve got to do on the Canadian Tour. There are examples all over the place of guys trying to save a buck here and there, driving everywhere and living out of the back of their car.”
It’s worth noting, though, that fewer of them end up where Hearn, Hadwin, and Mills are.
“In the long run, if you want to do this for a living, you have to do it right,” Mills says.
“It’s not a cheap sport,” adds Hearn. “But, when I hear guys talk about not having money and sleeping on couches, I don’t think that’s a real good formula for success. If you are going to be a professional, act like one – you don’t see the top players in the world doing that – even if you don’t have the money, you have to find a way.”
It’s either that, or you risk becoming another one of golf’s horror stories, rather than one of success.