From The Golf Journal Archives - The Minimum Wage of Golf

Nov 26, 2010

For the aspiring tour pro, survival is almost as much about economics as it is about performance.

By David Shefter

(Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2001 issue of Golf Journal.)

SARA MEICHTRY cannot tell the difference between a bird and a birdie, a bogey and the boogie monster, a bunker and a sand box. At 18 months, she is too young to understand why she spends virtually every day roaming around one golf course or another. This week her home is The Ravines Golf and Inn. Next week it is Gainesville, Fla., then Macon, Ga. These are her playgrounds and daycare centers. It’s where she innocently waits until daddy concludes his day at the office.

On a sun-splashed February day outside of Jacksonville, Fla., Sara races toward her father carrying two small flags she plucked from turf behind the 18th green. Eric Meichtry has just completed his second round of the first NGA/Hooters Tour event of 2001 and he is not going to make the cut. Before he signs his card, Eric swoops down to pick up his precious daughter. They exchange hugs and kisses. Sara smiles, oblivious to the financial ramifications of her father’s day.

Eric and Angie Meichtry know his score of 74 is not good. Missing the cut means no paycheck on Sunday. Gone is the $650 entry fee as well as money for food, gas and transportation. Car payments and insurance premiums are pending. Meichtry is not the Bank of America. At 31 and in his fifth year on this tour, his window of opportunity is slowly closing.

Meichtry is not alone. Each year, thousands of aspiring pros strive to reach the promised land – the PGA or LPGA tours. They peddle their wares on developmental or mini-tours. That’s where Fantasy Island and Survivor collide. But there are no tribal council votes. Nobody gets merit points for perseverance. Those few who emerge with a PGA or LPGA card prove their mettle with consistent play. The rest are reshuffled back to golf’s minor leagues, hoping another year provides a fruitful outcome or, if reality delivers a powerful enough jolt, forced into another form of employment.

For many, giving up their dream is more difficult than negotiating a 240-yard par-3 over water. They are like gamblers who consistently lose, but keep holding out for the big payoff. Life in golf’s lowest levels is not paradise. Sacrifices are made daily.

Tim Straub, the 1983 U.S. Junior Amateur champion and a member of Wake Forest University’s 1986 NCAA championship team, chased his dream to the Far East before accepting a head coaching position at Davidson University last spring. He survived for 10 years and could have continued. But like so many hopefuls, he could not seal the deal at the PGA Tour’s annual version of a job interview: Qualifying School.

Straub, 33, missed earning his PGA Tour card by two shots in 1991 and never came close again. “For some reason, I did not handle the pressure at Q-school well,” he says. “The last four or five years, I missed at second stage by one or two shots every time.”

Three years ago, Straub had an epiphany while sitting in a taxi in Thailand. In North Carolina, his first child was born two weeks premature and he couldn’t get home fast enough to witness the occasion. Missing that event made him realize there was more to life than chasing a tour card.

“I still play some,” says Straub, who competed at the Panama Open in January. “But this [situation] is ideal for us.”

GO TO ANY MINI-TOUR event and the players look like the pros you see on television, with their smooth swings and crisp attire. What separates them from the “big” players are the galleries and, of course, the prize money. These golfers are playing for blue-collar purses in a white-collar atmosphere. Unlike minor-league baseball or hockey, there are no contracts and signing bonuses. The only guarantee in pro golf is that there are 18 holes to negotiate in each round.

Most mini-tours have the feel of a glorified collegiate tournament. The players have small Sunday bags instead of oversized staff bags with a sponsor’s logo. On the NGA Tour, players eschew caddies for financial reasons. They are playing a high-stakes version of a Skins Game, but the cash comes from their wallets with sponsors picking up part of the purse.

“It’s organized gambling,” says Angie Meichtry. Nobody makes a stable career here, not when the purses range from $105,000 to $150,000.

“If I was only worried about money, I would have gone to law school or done something else,” says SBC Futures Tour veteran Liz Bowman. “It’s a passion.”

Adds Jenn Brody, another Futures vet: “This is a pure brand of golf. It’s more about excellence than anything else.”

It is difficult to believe the pot of gold does not fuel the dream. Last year on the PGA Tour, 45 players earned $1 million, one third of them without winning an event. Compare that to 1990, when there were just five millionaires. This year, 18 of the 49 events carry a price tag of at least $4 million. The developmental tours don’t play for that much in an entire year.

The numbers are significantly less on the LPGA Tour, but the average purse in 2000 was still $939,024, nearly double the amount in 1990. On the Futures Tour, the LPGA’s official developmental circuit, the average purse is $61,250. The two-year-old Ladies Challenge Tour offers a paltry average of $6,500 per event.

Fledgling pros spend year after year traveling by car (only the rare player with generous sponsors can afford to fly), staying in cheap motels and eating fast food just for the chance at this ever-growing treasure.

“This is our dream,” says Meichtry, who has made 40 of 85 cuts in just over four years on the NGA Tour for an average annual income below $26,000. “Once you quit this, your dream is done.”

FROM THE CLUBHOUSE above the ninth green, Angie and Sara Meichtry peer through a window to watch the action. Four years ago, Angie gave up work as a physical therapy assistant to join Eric on his journey. They amassed some $17,000 through a fund raiser at his northern California club and, until Sara arrived, Angie caddied for her husband. Now she’s on the bag for only a handful of events when someone else can take care of Sara.

“I wish we had daycare out here,” Angie says with a sigh. That is a luxury only PGA and LPGA tour pros enjoy. A lot of mini-tour wives don’t travel with their husbands, especially if they have kids. Angie is one of the few who does.

The Meichtrys often rely on the generosity of others for lodging. They stay with friends Eric has met along the way or with strangers. Many of the tours or the host clubs assist in this process. “They’ll sometimes provide housing for those who need it,” explains Eric. “We’ll do 22 tournaments this year and probably stay in housing 15 times. We enjoy it.”

Creative financing is paramount. The courtesy car likely is a friend’s vehicle and the buffet is a $3.99 special at a greasy spoon. The hotel of choice? It’s not the Hilton. The Meichtrys carry a stove and ice chest in their SUV. “We eat a lot of rice and hot dogs,” says Angie.

Four years ago, Meichtry almost did not survive his rookie campaign on the NGA Tour, which winds mostly through the southeastern U.S. “I was thinking, ‘I’ll show these southern boys how to play golf,’ ” Eric recalls. “I was terrible.”

Meichtry made one cut in his first 10 events. He was a week from insolvency and a premature trip home when the circuit arrived in Sikeston, Mo.

“It’s very scary,” says Angie. “There’s a lot of tears. There’s a lot of frustration and a lot of doubt.” Out of desperation or perhaps fate, Meichtry placed second, cashed the biggest check of his career to that point ($8,500). More importantly, he met Brad Bedell, a local businessman who would become his sponsor.

Without financial backing, most aspiring pros never reach the tee. Just one week on the NGA Tour costs a minimum of $1,000 in entry fees, lodging, food and transportation. Then there are the non-golf-related expenses. A budget for a season can run $50,000. Q-school brings a $4,000 entry fee, plus expenses. So making cuts is vital. Breaking even is considered a good year. Most players lose money.

“Before I met my sponsor, I was close to not playing anymore,” says Tyler Williamson, 28, one of Meichtry’s best friends on the NGA Tour. “I really don’t know how I’m still here. I was pretty much committed to playing and I made up my mind to somehow find help to stay out here.”

Meichtry estimates that Bedell invested $100,000 in his career. “He was looking to be part of the journey,” says Eric. “He wanted me to get on the PGA Tour.” Except it hasn’t happened. Meichtry has missed at the first stage each of the last three seasons. When Bedell decided to drop his sponsorship last October, Meichtry was coming off his best season ($62,092, includ¬ing a win at the tour’s season-ending championship) but he had no support.

Meichtry decided to sell shares to sponsors at $5,000 a pop, offering to give back 70 percent of his net winnings. He sold three shares by holding a “cyber auction” on some friends’ website. He has since sold four more and is optimistic he can sell another five to cover his 2001 season. But how long can he continue?

Meichtry missed four cuts to start the year, but remains steadfast. He has no immediate plans to find a 9-to-5 job. “The way I look at it, all my moons are lined up,” he says. “It’s like bogeying the first hole. Do you think you’re going to shoot 85 just because you bogey the first hole?”

AS CARY KOHATSU scurried around the clubhouse at Singing Hills Golf Club in El Cajon, Calif., the 33-year-old tried not to panic about her lodging situation for the next six nights. Kohatsu, who was participating in a Ladies Challenge Tour event, had already haggled the manager of a nearby motel down from $55 a night to $40. But she still needed a roommate. “I can’t afford to stay alone. I’m doing what I love, but it’s killing my pocket,” says Kohatsu, who turned pro six years ago. “It’s a hard life.”

When fellow pro Dixie Eckes stepped in to share the room, Kohatsu had extra cash for meals. She had forked over $325 to enter the 54-hole event, which offers a top prize of $1,200. With no sponsor to offset expenses, the Glendale, Ariz., resident survives from event to event, using money saved from her off-season job at the Arizona Traditions course. “Basically, I’m working my butt off to get sponsors or I’m playing my butt off just to pay for myself,” Kohatsu says.

Last year she was the Ladies Challenge Tour’s leading money winner ($9,039), which earned her a $4,000 “scholarship” for Q-school. She also won a tournament on the Players West Tour. This success enabled her to raise $6,000 through contacts in the Phoenix area so she could travel to Asia to compete in four events on the Kosaido Ladies Golf Circuit. She failed to make a cut. “That hurt a lot,” Kohatsu admits.

Kohatsu has conditional status on the Futures Tour, so she can play a handful of events, but her travel expenses will be high. “I played that tour two years ago and I had to quit,” says Kohatsu. “I maxed out my credit card at $6,000.”

The LCT is played on the West Coast. Although there are no cuts, everyone doesn’t get a check. The Singing Hills event drew 24 pros. Each player got a practice round and bucket of range balls per day with the entry fee. They were told to lock the balls in their cars if they planned to use the range after a round.

“The sacrifices are worth it,” says Kohatsu. “It’s the only way to your goals.”

If she doesn’t earn an LPGA card this fall, Kohatsu might have to make a difficult decision. She and her husband of 10 years have talked about starting a family. For Kohatsu, giving up her pro dreams will be excruciating. “I was never a person who sat on the bench,” says Kohatsu, who played college basketball at Grand Canyon College. “My husband understands that I’m an athlete and I’m very competitive. I will never quit anything before it’s time.”

AS THE BUS winded its way through the center of Manila, Patrick Moore could hear the pounding on the windows. The impoverished Filipino children wanted the attention of the golfers inside, who by comparison were affluent beyond their dreams. The sight made Moore, a former second-team All-America at North Carolina, shake his head. Playing the Asian Tour in the mid-1990s had opened his eyes to a new culture.

In a way, Moore is like those children. Since turning pro in 1992, his only goal has been to play on the PGA Tour. Nine years later, he’s still an outsider, knocking on the window.

Moore is no stranger to golf’s minor-leagues. He’s played the NGA Tour, TearDrop Tour, Dakotas Tour and tours in South Africa and Asia. Seven times, he has tried for his tour card; last fall he missed the final stage when he was eliminated in a 5-for-2 playoff. Now he’s playing the Canadian Tour for a second year, sharing a $1,200-a-month condo in North Myrtle Beach with Chris Greenwood. Greenwood’s father, Roy, and Dean Kennedy as the tour played its first four events in South Carolina.

Moore prefers the Canadian Tour because the entry fees are much lower than other tours. The amenities are down there too. After shooting a 1-under-par 70 to make the cut in the season’s first event, Moore got to Barefoot Landing’s practice facility 30 minutes before dusk. “Sorry, the range is closed,” an employee told him. Because of the heavy volume, the range hours of operation had been cut. Moore jumped in Kennedy’s car and the duo raced darkness to a range two miles up the road, where they had to purchase range balls. “This happens more than you think,” Moore says.

At least the Canadian Tour has a sponsor this year that provides new balls at each event. “We were hitting marbles [last year],” adds Moore. “Some of them didn’t even have dimples. It’s just something you learn to accept at this level.”

When Moore graduated in 1992 and turned pro he gave himself until he was 28 to achieve his goal; he is now 30. While three of his teammates from the Tar Heels’ 1991 NCAA runner-up squad have given up competitive pro golf – a fourth, Tom Scherrer is on the PGA Tour – Moore remains driven.

“I’ve always wondered where I would be (if I hadn’t turned pro),” says Moore, who made the cut in all four Canadian Tour events in Myrtle Beach, including one top-five finish. “I just don’t know.”

IF ANYONE can comprehend the financial nuances of pro golf, it’s Liz Bowman. Less than $200 separated her from an automatic spot on the LPGA Tour in 1999. The top three golfers on the Futures money list automatically earn a card; Bowman finished fourth.

“One stroke,” she says. Bowman, who ranks among the Top 10 in all-time Futures earnings ($85,563), earned an exemption to the final stage of Q-school in 1999, but her psyche had sustained a direct hit. “It was very, very hard for me to prepare myself mentally,” says Bowman. “I was so devastated that I got bumped out by $165.”

Bowman got a second chance in 2000, but again she left Q-school with no card and the prospect of another season on the Futures Tour. That was her fourth trip to the finals in seven tries.

At least Bowman entered 2001 with financial backing. Without the assistance from a group of Los Angeles-area businessmen, she likely would be sending out resumes. She has dabbled in journalism, writing a weekly column for the internet about life on the Players West Tour. It was called Motel Seis, after the popular Motel 6 chain.

“It’s a scary reality when you’ve been a pro for eight years and you do consider an occupation outside of playing," says Bowman. “Then you think to yourself, ‘Will anyone hire me? What does my resume say?’ That is very troubling.”

Bowman had little money when she graduated from UCLA in 1993. Bowman fondly recalls the small check she cashed in her first Players West event. “I shot one or two under par and only collected $50,” says Bowman, who in 1997 earned $21,000 on the Players West circuit. “I had no idea how good these girls were.”

Bowman looks at the list of 1993 All-America selections and sees her name, on the honorable mention list, below several recognizable pros such as Vicki Goetze-Ackerman and Charlotta Sorenstam. Most of the players on the list have either given up the game or like Bowman, remain in golf’s purgatory. Bowman nearly gave it up in 1998 after contracting walking pneumonia while playing in Europe. “I started thinking about what it would be like if I didn’t do this,” says Bowman. “Somehow I kept playing because I couldn’t let go. I went through a mid-life crisis. I wondered where my life was going.” She met her sponsor the next year.

Another crossroads awaits Bowman this year. Her three-year sponsorship contract ends. It might be extended, but “it would be really hard for me to justify playing anymore,” she says. “I would like to see the rewards from the game.”

Eric Meichtry has glimpsed those rewards. By winning the NGA Tour’s season-ending event last fall, he earned a sponsor’s exemption into the PGA Tour’s Michelob Championship at Kingsmill in Williamsburg, Va. Angie got to caddie and his parents flew in from California. Eric missed the cut, but the experience left an impression.

“Boy that was nice,” he says. “They really take care of you.”

It was light years away from NGA Tour. As dusk settles over the east coast of Florida and the parking lot empties from another day’s play, the Meichtrys are alone with Sara in the back of their SUV. Eric chats about his round, about how he struggled with his irons. Angie listens and offers support. Sara is oblivious. To an innocent child, every day is like the last. No worries.

If only professional golf was that perfect.

The Meichtry family is at home – and, in Eric’s case, at work – on mini-tour courses. (USGA Museum)

Kohatsu’s desperate plea to fellow pro Eckes netted her a roommate and motel costs low enough to meet her budget. (USGA Museum)

On every level, making the cut is key. In the minor leagues, though, it’s a matter of survival. (USGA Museum)