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Buried Lies: The dream of the PGA Tour still burns bright, but it's just that, a dream

Jack SheehanBy Jack Sheehan,
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So what's Plan B when you don't make the PGA Tour? (Courtesy photo)

There are several reasons why so many young men who make their college golf team these days turn pro and try to rustle up sponsorship money at their local club, with the eventual goal of making it to the PGA Tour.

Three reasons stand out:

First is the enormous pile of money now offered on the PGA Tour. Three or four decades ago it used to be that only 50 or 60 guys a year could make a decent living in America playing competitive golf. I caddied on the Tour in the early '70s for a guy who finished 73rd on the year-end money list. He didn't even make expenses and had to qualify nearly every Monday to get in the next tournament.

The news was more grim in the 1940s and '50s. Jackie Burke Jr. told me that after winning the Masters in 1956, he didn't play in the U.S. Open that year for fear of losing his summer club job at Winged Foot.

"The money from my job had more meaning to me at the time than any meager paychecks I might pick up on Tour," he said.

Now, anyone who can crack the top 125 on the Tour's 2008 money list - when you throw in endorsements and exhibition money - will earn well over a million bucks a year.

Then there is the Tiger Factor. By that I mean the phenomenon whereby a kid with terrific natural athletic ability is nurtured by parents who instilled in him equal parts Eastern philosophy and spiritual containment with a black American's determination to overcome any social barriers that might impede a drive to success, and thereby becomes the most celebrated athlete in the world and a role model to kids from all walks of life.

Think of the tens of thousands of inner-city kids who put all their eggs in one basket 20 years ago so they could be Just Like Mike (Jordan). How many of them made the NBA? Maybe two or three. Now, there are tens of thousands of kids with very little athletic ability or adequate coaching from qualified golf instructors who have but one goal in life, to be Just Like Tiger. There's certainly nothing wrong with aspiring to that lofty plane, as long as other life skills are developed along the way. But in too many cases, they are not.

The third reason so many modestly talented young men turn pro is due to the availability of dozens of minor league tours, which purportedly exist to nurture golfers on their way to the Big Show. There's the Hooters Tour, the Spanos Tour, the Butch Harmon, the Gateway, the Space Coast, the Golden State, etc. I'm surprised someone hasn't started a tour called the "I Can Break 75 Three Days in a Row on an Easy Course Tour," to provide a venue for guys in their early 30s who are still fooling the members back home into coughing up 50 grand a year in sponsorship money so the young men don't have to join the real world and get a job.

The upside to sponsoring a young man on his quest to stardom is obvious.

You have your one-in-10,000 stories like a Sean O'Hair or a Jason Gore or a Chad Campbell who battle their way through the minor leagues, get to the PGA Tour and win, and thereby generate reams of publicity about the heartwarming story of the car dealer back home who believed in the kid when no one else did and gave him a shot.

The downside is that there are squadrons of young men who blindly pursue their dream of playing at the highest level and never once formulate a Plan B for the rest of their lives. Because they never develop other talents or skills in the unthinkable event professional golf doesn't work out, they find themselves at age 35 or 40 working behind the desk of a pro shop with furrowed lines across their brow, resenting the members of their club who get to play golf three days a week. Although these youngsters certainly didn't turn pro so they could ring up large buckets of range balls, they've slammed the door on other options.

There are squadrons of young men who blindly pursue their dream of playing at the highest level and never once formulate a Plan B for the rest of their lives.

I was asked to speak at a Washington state junior golf banquet a few years back, and the theme of my talk was learning to use golf as a great supplement to a business career. In beginning the talk, I asked the 300 girls and boys in the room (many of whom were accompanied by their parents) how many planned on playing on the PGA or LPGA Tour when they grew up. More than 200 hands went up. I then asked how many were absolutely certain they would succeed on those tours. More than half of the hands stayed in the air.

I then said that while my purpose was not to discourage anyone, the sad dose of reality was that just one - two or three at the most - of those who raised their hands would achieve that goal. It so happened at the time that only one player from Washington state in the previous generation had enjoyed success at the highest level, male or female, and that was Fred Couples.

The point of my talk was that a good golf game could propel a young man or woman further ahead in a variety of wonderful careers - even, say, becoming a freelance writer. After the dinner, a father came up to me and asked me why I had tried to steal his daughter's dream. I told him that my only intention was to temper his daughter's main-course aspirations with a healthy serving of reality.

After a few more minutes of conversation with the man, I realized that pro golf wasn't the girl's dream at all. Rather, it was the father's dream for the daughter. Too often, that is the case.

Golf life lessons

As a lifelong amateur golfer who had multiple sponsorship opportunities to try professional golf, I offer a few anecdotes in support of remaining, as the old guard used to call it, a "simon pure."

Just the other day I was posed a question that gave me pause: "How important has golf been in your life?"

I rushed off an answer like, "Practically everything significant that has happened to me is either directly or indirectly connected to the game."

As that response was offered without a great deal of thought, later that day I jotted down some thoughts on just how my life had been influenced by our crazy game. The final breakdown looks something like this:

Boyhood: My first memories of golf are being asked by my father, a hard-working dentist who played on Saturdays only, to caddie for him. I was 7 years old. I typically pulled the cart for about three holes and then rode on the back wheels while he pulled me the rest of the way (which must have done wonders for his game). I took my first actual lesson at the age of 10 and remember being singled out by the pro for hitting the most solid shots of the snot-noses in our group. As a kid who had to be timed in the 100-yard dash with a grandfather clock, it was the first time I was made to feel remotely exceptional at any sport.

Important lesson Number One: My debut in tournament golf was a nine-hole match play event in northern Idaho at age 11. I lost 4 and 3 to a girl. It made me realize that golf is a difficult, occasionally humiliating game, and that I needed to work my tail off to prevent that from happening again.

High School: After four years of fairly intense practice (even hitting golf balls indoors against a tarp during Eastern Washington's four-month snowy season), I made the varsity golf team, No. 3 man, as a freshman. Our team went undefeated and won the Spokane City League championship, but this achievement earned me absolutely no status at my Jesuit prep school, where football was king and golf was considered a sport for pencil-necks and geeks. However, my father bragged on me to his patients, which was cool.

By senior year I had accomplished enough to be offered a four-year scholarship to the University of Oregon. Again, this earned me no props among my peers, but it did save my dad a buck or two.

Important lesson Number Two: If you want to get chicks, play football. If you want to walk without a limp after age 40 and be able to conduct business in beautiful surroundings, play golf.

College: I majored in golf the first two years, had marginal grades, then was informed that I was a few credits short of requisite progress and might be shipped to Vietnam if I didn't improve my class standing. I heard Saigon had crappy golf courses, and that napalm was murder on bent-grass greens. I switched my major to English, started earning A's, and my golf game improved. Our Oregon team finished in the Top 10 at the NCAAs, a nice accomplishment for a cold-weather school where the standard-issue uniform was rain gear and umbrellas.

I also decided that year that I didn't have enough talent, or desire, to try the PGA Tour. That wise decision saved me about five years of chasing the elusive dream that so many young players today find irresistible. (Even then, I was the only guy on our 12-man Duck roster who did not turn professional.)

Graduate School: As I was earning my masters in English and working as a night janitor in a hospital emergency room cleaning up blood, bile and parts of vital organs, I played serious amateur golf and reminded myself once again why I hadn't pursued a professional career. Basically, my short game totally sucked!

The Real World: My first job after grad school was as a sportswriter at a morning newspaper. I was hired because the editor was a low-handicap golfer who I regularly beat in tournaments. He never once looked at a writing sample before hiring me, only at my golf scores. One of the perks: I was asked to cover the golf beat so I actually got paid for playing in tournaments.

Important lesson Number Three: If you can shoot even par, you will go farther with your golfing superiors than if you are competent at your job.

The Sin City Connection: I moved to Las Vegas because I felt Spokane was a dead-end for a writer, and the desert offered far better weather, slightly better golf courses (this was in 1975, before the golf scene exploded here), infinitely more attractive senoritas and a greater variety of stories to write about. Every article or story pitch I sent to magazines was rejected in those first months, so I learned to deal blackjack and was quickly hired by a guy who was a gambling golfer and wanted a ringer on his side in future matches. I was eventually fired by the pit boss for insubordination and making illicit proposals to comely casino customers, but in time, I was fortunate enough to sell some national articles to golf publications, and between that and food stamps, I was able to scratch my way to a writing career.

Thirty three years after my odyssey to the desert, I now have a son who is a better golfer at age 12 than I was, and to my great surprise and elation, golf is considered cool. I fully expect that he not only will be able to win a scholarship for his golfing ability but will actually have girls like him because he's a good golfer, rather than in spite of it.

Final lesson: I want my son to absorb all sorts of important values from golf but particularly to acknowledge that he can earn more financial reward and spiritual nutrition from the ancillary benefits of the game, rather than playing it full time with that gun of pressure at his head.

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An author, professional keynote speaker, celebrity host, and humorist, Jack Sheehan is a 30-year Vegas insider. He is a New York Times best-selling author and screenwriter, with more than 11 books in print, including two with professional golfer Peter Jacobsen, Buried Lies and Embedded Balls.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Golf

    V T Jennings wrote on: Jun 26, 2008

    Your column puts to rest the idea that golf is just a "wasted walk". Enjoyed it for the life lessons to be learned along the way, as well as the instructional Irish wit. Even as a none golfer it was a delight to read.


  • Inspirational article

    H. Missildine wrote on: Jun 25, 2008

    Jack hit the nail on the head with this article...Through Tiger, Couples and many others golf has been truly elevated to the stature it deserves..Not everyone will make the "tour" of course but what young people will learn through playing that it is a gentleman's game...and no lying, cheating or drugs will improve your scores. Life long and great temporary friendships can be made amongst some of the most beautiful scenery on earth..


      • RE: Inspirational article

        Linda Taylor wrote on: Jun 26, 2008

        This was a great article w/a wonderful message for young people. Golf is such a gentlemen's game that breeds good conduct and habits and enduring friendships. Mr. Sheehan's life experiences really enhance the article. Let's here more from this writer.