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On the fringe

Journeyman pro Joe Cioe remains outside looking in at big time, but refuses to give up hope.

Published December 21, 2003

Sixteen years should be enough to determine the fate of an athletic dream.

All that time spent playing, practicing, collecting checks from pro tours that have long since closed, somewhere along the way Joe Cioe could have given up.

Having competed with golfers five years ago who now play for the big money at the highest level, Cioe could put away his clubs for good. Some of his peers have made it big. He has not.

Why continue after 16 seasons? Because the 17th might just be the one. Or the year after that.

In golf, everything can click at any time. If Cioe walks away, even at 38, he might miss his chance. After 16 seasons, he still is convinced it's coming.

* * *

Just down U.S. 19 from Homosassa in Hernando County's Glen Lakes, Glen Hnatiuk lives a comfortable professional life - the product of what the media call a "grinder's" golf existence.

Hnatiuk, a frequent off-season companion of Cioe's at World Woods and other area courses, has toiled around the fringes of the PGA Tour's top 125 money list for a few years. He has stayed just within the boundary line, holding onto the fully-exempt status and lifestyle of a tour regular.

Last year Hnatiuk earned $488,429. That's not the real life of a grinder.

Cioe earned roughly $10,000 this season and can't guarantee where his earnings will come from next year.

"I get to the point now where sometimes you look back and say, "How long can you keep playing the mini tours?' There's not that much money to be made," Cioe said. "But you never know. The thing about golf, you never know when your game is really going to come on and take it to the next level."

Cioe (pronounced choy) has seen the next level.

After several years grooming his game as a young pro on smaller tours, he played from 1995-97 as a full-time member of the Nike (now Nationwide) Tour, the equivalent of Triple-A baseball. He earned decent money ($54,088 in '95, his best season), which combined with winnings from other mini tours meant a few six-figure years.

Through the end of the 1990s into 2000-01, he continued to compete on an alphabet soup of circuits, from the now-defunct TearDrop Tour to the North Florida Tour to the Moonlight Tour. The kind of places where you put up hundreds of dollars to play in hopes of winning thousands.

"It's expensive, but there's money to be made if you play good," Cioe said. "If you're confident and playing well, you can play anywhere. It's just a matter of how much pressure you can handle."

At the end of every year, Cioe would pony up the $3,000-4,000 required to play the PGA Tour Qualifying School, the grueling three-stage tournament in which the last two dozen or so golfers standing receive full PGA Tour status the following year.

Through 13 tries, Cioe never got all the way through to a top finish in the final stage. This year, he did not even try.

* * *

Cioe has seen all sides of the pro life. Some of the players he has teed it up with have faded away, off the tours and into mainstream life. Others have hit it very big.

In March 2000, Cioe tied for 11th at 3-under-par 285 in the TearDrop Tour's Florida Series Championship at El Diablo, earning $2,650. He played the final round with New Port Richey's Tim Petrovic.

Soon after that, Petrovic shot up the ladder. He received player of the year honors on the 2000 Golden Bear Tour, racked up $100,000 in his first four events of the 2001 Nationwide Tour season and made it to the PGA Tour in 2002. This year, he finished 36th on the PGA Tour's money list with $1,739,349.

Petrovic is a year younger than Cioe.

"When we played the mini tours, he was never that much better than anybody else," Cioe said.

"Three years ago, he won the last couple Golden Bear events. It elevated his confidence, and he went on a tear after that," Cioe said. "That's what we're all looking for."

Cioe's wife, Mary, has been alongside for much of the ride. When he was on the Nike Tour, she often caddied. And when Cioe plays in New England during the summer, she remains in Homosassa, working full time. Either way, her life is intertwined with his.

"It's not for everybody. You have to understand golf," Mary said. "It's tough, but I'm fine with it. I understand what it takes to be where he needs to be, and I support it wholeheartedly."

* * *

If 16 years on the roller-coaster ride of a journeyman pro has taught Cioe anything, it is patience.

This past season has been the most trying of Cioe's career, as he has fought through a number of swing changes.

Though 5 feet 8 and 160 pounds, his right-handed swing is long and upright. Through an acclaimed teacher in Alabama, Cioe tried to create a shorter, flatter motion. For the most part, it bombed.

"I started hitting some real wayward shots out to the right. I thought it would come around but it never did, and then my confidence went down from all that," Cioe said. "I kept trying to stick with it, thinking in the long run it would be better. It just didn't work out."

Now Cioe is mostly back to his old swing, trying to reclaim the tee-to-green accuracy that was the strongest part of his game. He knows it takes time, and that throwing money at the PGA Tour Q-School this year almost certainly would have been wasted.

Instead, his 2004 plans include taking chances at Monday qualifiers for various Nationwide and PGA Tour events. On the Nationwide circuit, 100-plus golfers play 18 holes on a Monday to try to earn one of 14 spots in that week's event. Do so, then finish in the top 25 of the tournament and the player is exempt in the following week's event.

In 1996, Stewart Cink (now a PGA veteran and 2002 Ryder Cup team member) began the Nationwide season qualifying and ended up being the circuit's leading money winner.

"Every year you have guys that do that," Cioe said. "You have to keep mentally believing that there is something good that's going to go your way."

* * *

Cioe had conventional jobs, many years ago. In 1990, he worked for a few months at Spring Hill Golf Club, then off and on from 1991-92 for a golf school at Plantation Inn.

"That crosses my mind here and there still. Just being a regular club pro, he'd really earn a good living at that," said Lou Cioe, Joe's father. "But he's always had the dream to play (PGA) tour golf, and he's trying."

For one week in 1997, Cioe did. Through a Monday qualifier, he played in the Nissan Open at the famed Riviera Country Club outside Los Angeles, making the cut and finishing in a tie for 63rd.

"I think a lot about it now since I've been struggling," Cioe said. "I'd give anything to be back at that point, playing at that level. It's something I can always look back on and say it was a great week, but on the other hand I've got to think to myself, "That's my potential, that's what I'm capable of doing.' "

It might happen next year. It might not. But after 16 seasons, Cioe still needs to find out.

"Right now he just doesn't see himself doing anything else," Southern Woods head pro Rick Kelso said. "He just doesn't give up. We call him the ultimate grinder."

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