I grew up playing golf.
My first job was parking golf carts and picking up range balls at Los Alamitos Golf Course. One benefit of that job was practicing and playing for free. The guy I played behind in high school, Mike Miles, is playing in the US Senior Open right now. Once, another teammate, who just happened to be wearing his golf shirt on an off-day, an act that required serious chutzpa in the pre-TWoods era, told our substitute teacher we had a match and had to leave our 11th grade English class early to warm up. That day we got a few extra holes of practice in on account of her naivete. Who knew at the time we’d both end up being college administrators.
Growing up I used to think that playing professionally would be la ultima. Traveling to exotic places, being on television, being pampered by tournament committees, making mad money, basically living large.
Fast forward to the US Open where I watched a new wave of rookies like Cheng Tsung Pan and Cameron Smith methodically go about their business. With their swing coaches, sports psychologists, nutritionists, and fitness trainers. Pan grew up in Taiwan, spent a chunk of his youth in a Florida golf academy, and starred at the University of Washington. Smith is a 21 year-old Australian who finished fourth after nearly making a “2” on the par 5 18th. On the practice range their ball flight is so consistent it’s mesmerizing. On the greens, their strokes are so silky smooth it’s stupifying. To say these guys got game is an understatement.
The thought I couldn’t shake was that the Tour is like a life saving dinghy floating in the open ocean. For every Pan and Smith that makes it on, two other guys have to be tossed overboard, most likely journeymen in their 40’s. Approximately 500-1,000 guys around the world make a decent living playing professional golf, but at least 50,000-100,000 are seriously pursuing the dream on driving ranges, courses, and tours in Asia, Australia, Europe, South Africa, South America, and Canada. Then throw in NCAA college golf and the Tony Finau’s of the world who bypass college and learn to win on the Web.com Tour and you have a hyper-competitive field of work. Take a breather at your own and your family’s risk.
Every time a PGA journeyman goes to sleep, thousands of guys on the otherside of the world—a younger Pan in Taiwan and a younger Smith in Australia for example—are honing their craft. Professional golf is la ultima, la ultima meritocracy. Every year 90-95% of the players who don’t have any kind of cushion created by victories, have to prove themselves all over again.
The top 50 in the world get a disproportionate amount of the media’s and our attention. Thus, our perspective is grossly distorted. Imagine having a few thousand driven people from all corners of the world strategizing day and night on how to displace you. Then imagine having a family and being on the road two-thirds of the time. Then imagine losing a little confidence with the flat stick (e.g., Michael Putnam, Ernie Els).
It only took me forty years to learn that for the vast majority of journey men and women golfers, it’s an extraordinarily difficult way to make a living.