St. Petersburg Times Online: Sports

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Playing for pay no longer just a dream

The World Golf League gives everyday players the chance to cash in on big purses.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


Other than a putt to win a $5 Nassau among friends or a shot to clinch the club championship, average golfers never will experience the pressure of playing with prize money on the line.

Unless they join the World Golf League.

For a $95 entry fee, everyday golfers have the opportunity to compete at the local, regional and national level, where top finishers win prize money.

Mike Pagnano is banking on the allure. Even though golfers will have to give up their amateur status and declare themselves professionals to compete for the money, the WGL founder believes he has an idea that will become popular. More than 7,000 entrants last year were his first signal.

"There are no venues for the average golfer to play in a PGA Tour-style event," said Pagnano, whose venture is based in Orlando. "There is no pressure, where every putt counts. Playing for money, playing in a PGA style tour event, with a world-class venue, with scoreboards, media coverage ... it's a huge fantasy. Even if you don't win any money, there is a huge sense of fulfillment."

Golfers can join in four-player groups or as individuals and be assigned to foursomes. Each foursome plays a one-round competition at a course of its choice, between now and August. League members pay the greens fees.

The foursomes play one round, with the low-net player advancing. A player who fails to advance may attempt to qualify through a new four-player group for a fee of $25. Qualifying attempts are unlimited.

Regional competitions are June through September and will be scheduled around the country as one-day, low-net stroke-play events. The top 400 qualifiers (50 players from eight flights) advance to the national tournament in October in Las Vegas.

Last year, the national tournament was at Mission Inn near Orlando, with 200 competing for $200,000 in four flights. This year's purse is expected to be $1-million in eight flights. All events are played at full handicap, with a statistical adjustment system in place to prevent fudging, or "sandbagging."

The drawback? The loss of amateur status. According to United States Golf Association rules, to remain an amateur, a player may not accept a prize in value of more than $500. Trophies are excluded. In order to play for money in the WGL, a player must declare himself a pro.

"That means absolutely nothing to lose amateur status for 99 percent of the population," Pagnano said. "The means you're not eligible to play in a USGA-sanctioned event. Most people don't play in those anyway.

"This doesn't mean you can't play with a handicap. It doesn't mean you can't play at your club with a handicap. A club might preclude you from playing in their club championship; that's up to the club. If you have received more than $500 in compensation in one year, you're a pro.

"But it means nothing to our customer. The avid, avid golfer at a country club level, the Davis Love III-type who is steeped in tradition, he's never going to join the World Golf League anyway."

Jim Demick, the executive director of the Florida State Golf Association, which rules on amateur status questions in the state, said golfers simply need to be careful about joining if they have intentions of later competing in amateur events.

"I'm not a promoter of it (WGL), because I think there are enough amateur events to play in to get them just as nervous, just as excited," Demick said. "As long they understand the circumstances about turning pro, I have no problem with it. Go play golf and have fun."

Demick said an amateur who competes with the intent to earn money -- even if he makes none -- is considered a professional. Or, for example, an amateur who wins a car for making a hole-in-one is considered a professional. It takes a minimum of a year to regain amateur status.

Pagnano got the idea for the WGL when he was involved with a senior men's baseball league for players 30 and older. There was tremendous demand for such competition, enough that the organization has 40,000 members, Pagnano said.

"If it was that popular with baseball, imagine what it could be with golf. There might be a million adults out there still willing to play baseball," he said. "But there are 26-million golfers in this country."

Acknowledging that his venture is in conflict with the golf establishment, Pagnano said his organization adopted the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews -- instead of the USGA -- to make the game more enjoyable for average players.

The obvious reason is to allow golfers in WGL events to play with the USGA non-conforming ERC II driver -- and to gain support of the Callaway Golf Co.

"The WGL is now the WWF of the golf world, or the XFL of the golf world," Pagnano said. "There is no stopping it now. Given the opportunity to play for money, people want to. Why shouldn't they have that opportunity?

"How dumb are we that we have allowed the PGA and USGA to dictate to us how we are to play the game. They tell the golfing public that only an elite few can play for money. Us idiots, myself included, have to play for gift certificates."

- For information on the World Golf League, call (888) 969-9059 or visit www.WorldGolfLeague.com

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.