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Big dreams support minitours

Thousands barely scratch out a living in hopes of making it to the PGA and LPGA tours.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2000


They are fortunate to attract as many fans for the week as there are players in the tournament, happy to make ends meet. All the while, they wonder about their career choice, hoping to keep the dream alive.

For every golfer who makes a fabulous living competing on the PGA and LPGA tours, there are dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of aspiring players who are struggling to get to that level.

Most of them compete on various minitours that dot the golf landscape, hoping to hone their games, make a few dollars and put themselves in position to qualify for the big time.

Far more fail than prosper.

But some keep trying, having been at this game for years. The play for what would be tip money on the big tour, sometimes going broke in the process, fighting off the demons that tell them they should find another line of work. They play on tours known as the TearDrop, Hooters, Golden Bear and others.

Women professionals face similar obstacles. Those striving to make the LPGA Tour can hone their skills on the Futures Tour or enter the annual LPGA Tour Qualifying Tournament.

"The hardest thing is to get there," said Javier Sanchez, 41, a ninth-year pro who has qualified for five U.S. Opens but never the PGA Tour. "Once you get there, the cut is the top 70 and ties. The golf courses, the conditions are pure. It's a whole different thing. To be honest with you, I think it's easier to make money out there than it is on these minitours."

Andrew Morse is convinced the line between a good minitour player and playing on the PGA Tour is razor thin.

"I like to say I've taken the longest, hardest route to the PGA Tour that a player can take," said Morse, 41, a professional since 1984 who has never made it to the PGA Tour. Morse won the Buy.com's Utah Classic on Sept. 3. "Playing with the guys through the years and seeing who has made it out there, knowing I can beat this guy, beat that guy ... that keeps me going. I've played with guys at the tour school (qualifying tournament), then seen them on television, and there's a guy leading the tournament. You know you should be there, too.

"I haven't played out there yet, but I have a lot of talent. It's a matter of getting a break at the right time. The easy thing would be to quit, go teach or work at a club. That's not what I want."

What Morse wants is what is coveted by the masses, and most believe that getting to the PGA Tour is a far more difficult battle than staying there.

For a minitour player, the only route to the PGA Tour is through the annual qualifying tournament. That typically means paying $4,000, enduring three stages of qualifying: two 72-hole tournaments and the grueling 108-hole final. From there, just the top 35 players and ties receive PGA Tour cards. The next 50 earn an exemption to the Buy.com Tour, a step below the big tour.

Although the purses on the Buy.com Tour (formerly the Nike Tour) are modest, they are still far better than the minitour circuit. And the Buy.com Tour offers a way to graduate to the big tour by finishing among the top-15 money earners; the top three Futures players advance to the LPGA Tour. Morse is 21st on the money list having played a limited schedule.) A player also can advance to the PGA Tour by winning three Buy.com events in a season. Minitours offer nothing but the chance to compete. They are set up to have the look and feel of a regular tour event, save for the big crowds and television exposure. And, of course, the money. At a TearDrop tournament on the West Coast of Florida earlier this year, players paid $600 to enter the 54-hole event. Only those who make the cut have a chance to earn their money back. Unless they finish near the top 10, a player probably won't cover his expenses for the week. The winner received $12,000.

The success of several current PGA Tour members encourages the risk. Tom Lehman, Notah Begay III and Stewart Cink are among former minitour or Buy.com players who have won on the PGA Tour this year. The numbers suggest it will be difficult for any of these players to make it. There are too many aspiring golfers on so many tours competing for so few spots.

Jean Paul Hebert has a unique perspective. His late father, Jay Hebert, won the PGA Championship in 1960. His uncle, Lionel, won the PGA in 1957. "The two of them, being so involved in golf, it was just there for me growing up," said Jean Paul, 29, who plays on the Hooters Tour.

"Sometimes I think if I had gotten a job out of college, I'd be making $100,000 a year by now and might be where I want to be for the rest of my career," Hebert said. "But I don't think about it that often. This is what we do. I've done it so long, and as long as I enjoy it, things aren't too bad. You never know, there is a certain percentage of guys on our tour who graduate to the next level."

Hebert holds out hope, knowing that in his sport, approaching the age of 30 does not have to mean you are getting old.

"Guys are competitive at a much older age, and more guys are competitive now than they used to be, especially with the birth of the senior tour," Hebert said. "... It takes a long time to mature as a player. Some guys do it early, like (Tiger) Woods and Sergio Garcia and Justin Leonard. For most of us, it's a long process of learning."

They try to put their education to use this fall at the qualifying tournament. The first stage begins next month, with the finals set for late November. If unsuccessful? It's back to the minitours.

The life is not glamorous, to be sure. Tournament locations are in out-of-the-way places, hotel rooms are anything but swank. "Frequent flyer" miles are only banked in cars, which pile up the wear and tear as players get to the next location. Once there, they plunk down another entry fee, tee it up and try again. "I just want one year out there on the regular tour to see," said Morse, who said his best financial year was $110,000 -- before expenses -- in 1996. "If you miss a cut, you don't have to struggle to get in the next week. It's big to know that if you have an off week, you have another week. I've never had that yet.

"... For somebody like me, there's a big jealousy factor to see someone come right out of college. Yeah, you have to give him credit. ... It's very hard to explain."

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