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Flying above the maddening crowd

Several pro golfers own planes or share private jets, paying tidy sums to travel fast and in comfort.

Published October 26, 2004

PALM HARBOR - Anyone who travels on a regular basis despises the hassles: the early trips to the airport, the long security lines, the cramped quarters on planes, the lost luggage.

For professional golfers, these problems are magnified. They are on the road for weeks, traveling from city to city, often with family in tow. And there's nothing worse than waiting for golf clubs, tools of the trade, that never come down the carousel.

That is why a healthy number of players in town for the Chrysler Championship arrived on private aircraft, some for last week's tournament in Orlando, others this week at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport.

Phil Mickelson owns a plane and often flies it himself. A growing number have fractional ownership, much like a timeshare. And three players - Clearwater's John Huston, Fred Funk and Jeff Sluman - are part of a unique deal with a St. Petersburg company that allows them to have part ownership in a plane, which means they virtually have it at their disposal whenever they want.

Of course, there is a price. A hefty one.

But pro golfers have the potential to make a lucrative living, and all who travel in this manner swear by the benefits. In the case of Huston, Funk and Sluman, each has in excess of $10-million in official PGA Tour earnings. Not that they took the decision to invest in an airplane lightly.

"You can't measure it, it's an intangible," said Funk, 48, who has six PGA Tour victories, including last month at the Southern Farm Bureau Classic, and has earned more than $1.9-million this year. "It's still a very expensive way to travel, but the benefits far outweigh the expense. I travel with my family every week and they very seldom miss a tournament. To lug them through airports, with the amount of luggage we have, the security issues ... it's just a nightmare.

"It's a nice plane. If you're late, it's still there. They take you to the smaller airports. It's just so much easier."

Funk, Huston and Sluman have partnered with Gray Gibbs, a St. Petersburg tax attorney who owns Elite Air and, in essence, co-owns a Lear 31A jet with each and another partner. Used, the jets cost $3.5-million each.

While the players are not using the planes, Elite Air charters them at $1,750 per hour. That helps defray expenses and the players' initial investment.

"What we do is help them buy an airplane and then manage it, making sure it's crewed and maintained," Gibbs said. "We are able to reduce the cost of flying by chartering it out for them. That revenue offsets a very significant portion of the operating costs, all the way from the pilots to the insurance."

Gibbs said the Lear, which was the first private jet made, is "just as reliable as the day is long." Each has two pilots and can seat up to eight people, although luggage can sometimes make that tight. The occupants can request whatever food and drink they like. The plane can travel at an altitude of 51,000 feet and has a maximum speed of 510 mph.

Each player has an hourly rate he pays for flying, so depending on the number of hours in the air, those fees could run about $200,000 annually. In addition to payments on the initial investment, it is hardly cheap to travel this way. (Funk estimated his annual airfare expense when flying commercial with his family at $75,000 to $100,000.)

"We tell people this is not an investment, this is a mode of transportation," Gibbs said. "If you're looking to make money off airplanes, go buy a CD. If you need to go from point A to point B in a comfortable way, I can do it cheaper than anybody else."

The fractional ownership plan works differently. A customer puts up an initial investment, typically more than $500,000, and has an equity stake for five years. In essence, a person has a one-eighth ownership of a plane, even though he might not use the same plane every time. Then there are monthly maintenance fees, which can run to more than $6,000 and an hourly rate.

Huston, who has seven PGA Tour titles and has earned $859,163 this season, was in a similar program before he hooked up with Gibbs and said: "You can't compare it to commercial travel. It's just so much more convenient. It's almost like blinking your eyes and you're there without any hassle. There's no hoping that your luggage gets there."

Funk said he considered doing a fractional plan "but I couldn't justify that much cost. I met Gray and he told me that we could buy an airplane. I kind of laughed at him. But he ran the numbers and even the worst of years has been cheaper than doing a fractional deal. So far, it's been very good. It's something you kind of look at as a necessary expense. And now I'm spoiled. It would be hard to go the other way."

Arnold Palmer bought an Aero Commander 500 in 1961 and became the first pro athlete to regularly fly between home and tournaments. Over the years, others began to recognize the benefits. Jack Nicklaus has owned his own plane for years. Same for Greg Norman and Nick Price.

Today, there is so much money to be made in golf that even less-prominent players are able to afford some form of private air travel. Among those playing this week who are or have been part of some fractional system: Billy Andrade, Paul Azinger, Stewart Cink, Jim Furyk, Charles Howell, Hank Kuehne, Davis Love, Rocco Mediate, Jesper Parnevik, Tom Pernice, Vijay Singh, Hal Sutton, David Toms and Mike Weir.

"It's the value of your time and how you determine that value," said Sluman, the winner of six PGA Tour titles who has earned $949,385 this year. "As much as we're on the road, it is very valuable to get home as soon as you can. You can essentially spend 10 or 12 more days at home, and that's a big deal. A person reading this might not think it's a big deal, but if they were on the road for 230 to 240 days a year for 20 years, they'd probably agree with what I'm saying."

Huston said it helps him play better, and makes it easier to get over the disappointment of performing poorly.

"It's great having that plane ready to go," he said. "Especially if you miss the cut. There is no worse feeling than to miss the cut. A couple of weeks ago, I missed the cut in Vegas and I was home probably six hours after I putted out. I don't get over it until I get home, so the quicker I get home, the better."

[Last modified October 26, 2004, 00:41:13]

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