For almost every good player who wants to be a PGA Tour player, the path to their dreams is a long arduous process. I’ve written before about moving through the junior golf and college ranks and into the mini-tour circuits. What I didn’t spend a lot of time on was just how gritty the mini-tours can be.
Their entire purpose is to play high-end competitive golf against guys who can clean your clock and don’t just roll over because you can hit it 300 yards. Everybody on the mini-tours can hit it 300 yards. Everybody on the mini-tours can shoot scores in the mid-60’s; for the most part, the courses are easier and shorter. But still.
So you show up for your debut on the mini-tours with your normal mindset of judicially and tactically wending your way around the course. And the world passes you by. Experienced guys on the mini-tours intend to make birdies on every hole. You have to.
And in order to do that you have to come to terms with the quality of your game. Just how good is your swing? Are you at the point where you’re able to play without thinking about your swing or are you still swing-bound? Can you play detached from your ego or are you still trying to impress the other guys and get embarrassed and angry when you don’t.
The best of the mini-tours is, of course, the Nationwide Tour. The reason is that most everyone out there got there because they got to, but didn’t get through, the final stage of Q-School. Which is no great shame because only 25 guys do. So the guys who get to the finals are all very good players and that’s who’s on the Nationwide Tour. Do they need more seasoning? Yes, but they’re still very good players.
The purses are a lot better now, but when the Nationwide first started (as the Hogan Tour), guys were starving. I think I remember the winners getting $25,000. You had to be doing it because you were bound and determined to make yourself a better player, not to make any money. Most guys had benevolent investors who were backing them because there was no sponsors’ money back then either. They tried to schedule the events so that the guys could drive from tournament to tournament. It was a true vagabond life where the sacrifice was for the possibility of a golden future.
Now the winners make between $100,000 to $130,000 dollars. But even so, that’s the winner. I was looking at William McGirt’s results for 2010. McGirt is the guy who hung on to capture the 125th spot in the FedExCup standings last week in Greensboro and gained admission to this week’s The Barclays played at the Plainfield Country Club in Edison, New Jersey.
It’s not clear how he got to the Nationwide, but he played Hooters, Gateway and the eGolf mini-tours, so he fits the mold. What all that experience did for him was to teach him how to make cuts. He went 17 for 24 with 8 of them being top 25 finishes. But still, he only made $173,000 for the year’s work (less travel and golf expenses, taxes and his personal living expenses). That wasn’t enough to be in the top 25 money winners, so it was off to the dreaded Q-School.
And you’d have to say that Q-School went pretty well for him: he finished T2. And what that meant was that he finished high enough that he had status into the 2011 PGA Tour events right off the bat. He missed the cut in Honolulu, but he was there. He missed the cut at the Hope, but he was there. And he missed the cut in La Jolla, but he was there. But even in failure, he was sowing the seeds of believing in himself; he was playing on the PGA Tour!
He finally made a cut in Phoenix and then at Riviera which gave him a nice little stash of $90,000…and some sense that he could play with these guys. He ended up only making 13 of 26 cuts and $341,000 on the year, but it was just enough; he edged out Justin Leonard for that 125th spot by just 6 points. In his post-round standup interview, he seemed grateful and appropriately humble.
But what that also gave him is a larger sense of himself. Why do I think that? Because although he wasn’t able to complete his first round Thursday due to a 3-hour rain delay, through 11 holes he’s tied for the lead at 7-under par. And as much as anything, it was the spectacular way that he did it: he made 7 birdies in a stretch of 8 holes, the 4th through the 11th.
Now the other thing about mini-tour players is that since they have to be birdie machines to survive out there, they’re used to making them. We mortals are always pleased when we make a birdie, but for them, it’s normal. It’s routine. And they’re not afraid to keep making them once they start.
The most I ever had in a row was 4, but they didn’t come from “trying” to make birdies, they came from completely trusting my swing (and my putter) to hit the shot I was completely invested in trying to hit. And that’s what mini-tour guys are used to doing, going for it, full out, 100% committed to each shot.
So it’s fun to see somebody like McGirt who’s paid his dues and learned his lessons blossom into the player he knew he was.
Let’s hope that he keeps it going. Wouldn’t that be something?