How easy is it to go pro?

February 1, 2018

 

 

The number of golfers who play in Great Britain has hovered around 4 million for over a decade now, equating to around 8% of the adult population. Globally, around 60 million players regularly pick up a set of clubs and walk 18-holes, so how do you even begin trying to stand out as an amateur golfer? Pro Tour College say that 98% of young amateur golfers will fail, and even those who make it onto a pro tour will only last 3 years. I delved into the world of amateur golf to find out exactly what it takes to succeed.

 

It was the 25th of June, a perfect sunny day at Sandy Lodge golf club, with no clouds in sight. Jack Hawksby was stood over a putt, his last shot of the round, three feet, straight up the hill, simple on any other day. But this wasn’t any other day, Jack was one shot away from coming top of his group in The Open qualifying, a shot which would send him within two rounds of the prestigious golfing major. All eyes were on him, a crowd has gathered around the 18th green, and Jack knew that he was up there on the leaderboard. Suddenly the simple three-footer looked like a mile. Jack stared down at the ball, completing his routine, and took one deep breath before slowly bringing the putter back three inches, and then gently pushing it through the ball. Time slowed down, almost to a halt, as the white spherical ticket to golfing royalty rolled towards the hole, finally dropping in with a series of satisfying clicks.

 

“Jack, you’ve done it! You’re leading with 3 under!” someone informed him as he left the green, and began preparing for his Open charge.

 

Reflecting on one of the biggest wins of his short career, 20-year-old Jack said: “I felt very excited to be there, but very focused on what I wanted. The atmosphere was amazing because of all the pros around, and I was nervous because it was a huge occasion.

 

“Before I went out, the first group came in and one of the boys had shot 68, which was two under par, so I had a goal before I set out. I felt the pressure get to me a little on the first tee, it was a big deal and I needed to play well. When I holed it and walked off the green, the feeling inside is something I can’t even describe.”

 

Jack now had only a week to prepare for the final hurdle between him and The Open, final qualifying at Hollinwell. Illness and nerves had struck Jack badly, as a terrible cold combined with the realisation that this was the biggest competition of his life.

 

“I felt the most nervous I’ve ever felt about anything, because I knew I was so close to fulfilling my dream. The competition was better this time around, I knew I had to improve a little from Sandy Lodge. I knew I had it in me to do it, it was just the fact of letting myself actually do it.”

 

Jack played the first round nicely, but it took him until the 15th hole to make his breakthrough. Birdies on 15 and 16 put him in a strong position, as his narrowly missed a third on the 17th. After day one, Jack sat in tied 8th on two under, just four shots off the lead.

 

Unfortunately, Jack’s illness meant that the first round had expended most of his energy, and on day two he found himself slipping down the table. He eventually finished on three over, a whole 13 shots away from the eventual winner. He had been so close to The Open, but the dream had gone for another year.

 

However, these kinds of mini setbacks are common in the journey to turning pro, and even the superstars of amateur and professional golf have suffered similar defeats.

 

In golf, as with boxing, turning pro is as easy as showing up one day and declaring yourself pro. From this moment, you can attempt to get on a range of professional tours and competitions, however, most golfers will wait until they have a number of successful amateur years under their belt.

 

English golfer, Alfie Plant, played as an amateur for 8 years before making the step up to professional after his silver medal win in the 2017 Open Championship. Alfie won four amateur titles in this time, including the 2017 European Amateur, which earned his entry to that years’ Open. In his first appearance at the biggest British golfing event, he carded opening rounds of 71 and 73 to make the cut, the only amateur to do so that year. Further rounds of 69 and 73 cemented his silver medal, an award given to the leading amateur at The Open Championship.

 

It wasn’t until this momentous win that Alfie decided to take the plunge and go pro.

 

“Being top amateur at The Open just confirmed that it was the right time to be turning pro, I felt that I was ready, it was like getting the green light to give the pro ranks a go. This didn’t mean that I was guaranteed to have a successful career, just that I was ready and had a realistic chance,” Alfie said.

 

“The list of silver medallists is great, and the names of there give you strong belief, but there are also plenty of names on there who haven’t progressed to where they wanted to.”

 

The fact that after winning one of the largest competitions you can possibly win as an amateur, it still didn’t guarantee a successful pro career really highlights how incredibly tough the game of golf is. With the sheer numbers of people playing it, and the tiny margins between scores, it is incredibly difficult to maintain a good enough level to make a realistic run at going pro.

 

“The advice and guidance are there, but firstly you have to want the advice and guidance. Then you just need to listen, find out what is beneficial in your progress, and implement it. This is when having a team around you that you can trust is very important.”

 

Even Alfie has set backs during his career, as he failed to get through Q School (Qualifying School- a series of competitions amateurs can take part in, to gain entry to large professional tours and events) and didn’t get a category to play the 2018 season.

 

The Lottery of Qualifying Schools:

 

700 hopefuls with handicaps of scratch or better enter

310 qualify for stage two

80 qualify for stage three

25 secure cards to play in the next season

Sometimes as little as 5 make enough to retain these cards (Usually $230,000)

 

However, as Dylan Dethier said so well in his account of his own career, “Everyone is kind of trash, until they’re not.” In golf, it’s really a case of getting every aspect of your game to come together, all at once, in one round. It is rare for teenagers to break through onto the professional tour and cause a stir in golf, but what is far more regular is a golfer who has been on the tour for years without winning much suddenly finding form and shooting up the rankings.

 

Take Tommy Fleetwood for instance, now one of England’s most promising young golfers. He turned pro in 2010, and flew relatively under the radar in terms of big wins, until 2017 in which he carded his best ever finish in all four of the majors, including an amazing fourth place in the U.S Open. Despite already being 26, and having had seven years as a pro, it took him until this point to find that spark, that little something that clicked his entire game together. This is in no way calling Fleetwood trash before 2017, but he is a clear example of how fortunes can change in the blink of an eye.

 

Players like Alfie Plant and Tommy Fleetwood all started off on amateur tours/competitions, and took part in the Walker Cup. This is a kind of Ryder Cup for amateur golfers, and is perhaps the biggest all-amateur competition in golf, somewhere Jack Hawksby is aiming to get to.

Jack explained: “The aim going forward now is to work hard for the next two years and get into the Walker Cup team, then from that I will get loads of invites to European Tour events. By then I will have turned pro, then will work hard to get my European tour card, and if not, then my challenge tour card.

 

“I practice around 12 times a week, and will continue to work with my coach Barney Puttick, which has helped me massively over the last year.”

 

The costs of going pro:

 

Competing for a year on the PGA Tour: Over $110,000

Competing on the Nationwide tour: Over $75,000

Competing on the Challenge Tour: $90,000-$110,000

Caddies on PGA: $1,200 a week

Caddies on Nationwide: $300 a week

Mini-tours: $1,500 to join and $1,200 per individual tournament

You still have to think of flights, accommodation, food, coaching, equipment, etc, which can be well over $50,000

 

One aspect of the game Jack admits he hasn’t put much planning into so far is the cost. Golf is famously an expensive game to play, once you add up the money needed for clubs, balls, membership, etc, and that’s before you even factor in the further expenses for going pro. Coaching, tour membership and events costs can easily rack up into the thousands.

 

Jack currently plays his golf at The Millbrook Golf Club in Bedfordshire, a club that is no stranger to producing promising young talent. Just a few years older than Jack Hawksby, another Jack, Jack Leek also looked down the pro route a couple of years ago.

 

Known to his mates as Leeky, Jack Leek held the record for the lowest ever round at Millbrook, four under, before Jack Hawksby came along a year later and posted six under that is.

 

A promising and determined teenager, Leeky was playing off a four handicap and looking to make it on to a professional tour. He was accepted into the Lee Westwood Academy, eventually playing off two once he finally arrived there.

 

He signed up to a gap year, which involved playing three days a week, recording stats, and working on the weaker areas of his game. There were around 40 or so other likeminded young golfers at the academy during Leeky’s time.

 

Leeky explained: “I was hoping to drop my handicap whilst I was there, as the lesson structures were very good, with recording stats, planning improvements, mental training and gym/fitness work too. We would plan our days based on what area we wanted to improve, how we would do it, how long for, and what we would need.

 

“It was very intense, it was really however much you put into it, you got out of it. It gave me an insight into how, and what I needed to do to get to the next level of amateur golf.”

 

After Leeky’s year at the academy, he had seen significant progress, cutting his handicap down from 2 to a low scratch the next summer. After this gap year, he went to seek out further training from England coach Paul Ashwell, who has made a career out of teaching top amateur and European Tour players.

 

“I was with Paul for six or seven months, over the winter period, and he got me into a position where I was confident and comfortable with my game, with the results showing.”

 

Unfortunately, it was this ever-present issue of funding that eventually put an end to Leeky’s dream of going pro, as he called it quits last year.

 

“There are so many young golfers whose parents are wealthy enough to play competitions up and down the country, or even abroad. This was the reason I couldn’t afford to carry on, along with the pressure of it all. Half the battle is funding unfortunately.

 

“Nowadays for golfers to pursue a career in golf, they need an endless pot of money, or very good sponsorship. I weighed it up at the end of last year and decided to give it up, as I was effectively just a number with average results/ranking.”

 

Money is a huge problem for any rising star in golf, with the funds needed to even compete on professional tours being rather expensive. To retain your card on the PGA Tour, you need to be earning above $230,000 in prize money each season, with a lot of that going towards entry fees, accommodation, flights and expenses.

 

Golf isn’t like football, it’s far more independent. You don’t have a huge steady pay check coming in each week. Your pay is determined by where you finish in that particular tournament or event. If you don’t play well, you don’t get paid well, and if you don’t get paid well, you won’t retain your card. You need a decent bank roll to start you off, and amazing consistency from there on in.

 

Unfortunately, if you go by Pro Tour College’s stats, 49 young golfers must fail for every one to even get a shot at making a career out of the sport. However, Leeky did urge that the opportunities and coaching is out there for anyone who wants it.

 

“Everything is out there to get hold of. Swing coaches, physiological coaches, short game coaches, putting coaches, fitness coaches, literally anything you can think of. It’s all about finding the best one for you and your game.

 

“Turning pro is simple, it’s as easy as turning up and declaring yourself pro. There are a lot of stages and circuits to play professional golf on, with the goal to reach the pinnacle of the game, which is the European tour and PGA tour level. I have qualifications in mechanical engineering, so who knows, I could be making the golf clubs for amateurs of the future.”

 

What Leeky describes here is the dream of every golfing amateur, reaching that very top level of PGA tour and European tour success. In order to grasp what this level of golf feels like, and the journey to it, I spoke to top English pro Tyrell Hatton.

 

When it comes to English amateur success stories, they don’t come much better than Tyrell Hatton in recent years. In 2011 he was outside of the top 1000 players in golf, but has worked hard and climbed up year after year, almost breaking the top 100 in 2015.

 

Men’s top 20 rankings: 

 

1.Dustin Johnson 2.Jordan Spieth 3. Justin Thomas 4. Hideki Matsuyama 5. Jon Rahm 6. Justin Rose 7. Rickie Fowler 8. Brooks Koepka 9. Henrik Stenson 10. Rory McIlroy 11. Sergio Garcia 12. Jason Day 13. Marc Leishman 14. Paul Casey 15. Matt Kuchar 16. Tyrell Hatton 17. Alex Noren 18. Tommy Fleetwood 19. Pat Perez 20. Rafa Cabrera Bello

 

Tyrell currently sits at 16th in the world, and is the third highest English golfer in the rankings. Since turning pro, Hatton has won three times on the European tour, and enjoyed a tied 5th place finish in the 2016 Open Championship, along with tied tenth at the PGA Championship in the same year.

Tyrell told me: “I was nearly 20 when I first turned pro off a handicap of plus four. I started golf when I was really young, and it was always something I really wanted to do, I spent my whole childhood wanting to be a pro golfer.

 

“I’m not one to practice a lot of hours on the driving range, but I do like to play a lot of golf. I just played and played and played. If I hadn’t made it, I would be playing a lot more Xbox.”

 

I asked Tyrell what advice he would have for young amateur golfers, at a similar age to him when he first went pro. He said: “Don’t give up. People will try and bring you down, but believe in yourself and the way you go about your business. Give it your best every time, no matter how small the task.”

Jack Hawksby is a similar age to Tyrell when he first went pro, and currently sitting on a handicap of plus two (meaning that Jack aims to shoot two under par on every course he plays), he’s only two shots away from where this top 20 player was at his age.

 

Jack and his team at Millbrook Golf Club are fresh off the back of a win at the Annodata Matchplay Golf tournament in Spain, a competition open to any and every club in England, Scotland and Wales, which shows the calibre of player he is.

 

“I love this sport so much, and don’t know what I’d do without it in my life. It gives me massive joy to be able to play it every day, but I will have to work hard and put in a lot of time to get to where I want to be,” Jack said.

 

“My dream is to be on the European Tour, and to play in all the majors. I would love to be in the final group, on a Sunday of The Open at St Andrews.”

 

There are many positive to take, and comparisons to be made for Jack as he continues his charge towards The Walker Cup, and the pro tour, and who knows, maybe we could be looking at a star for the future.

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