The path to the PGA Tour has changed dramatically over the past two decades, but the cost and the creative ways would-be professionals conjure to finance that dream connects generations.
Today, young professionals face a daunting, if not predictable, path to the big leagues through myriad lesser circuits that has created a clear structure that didn’t exist in 1990 when Steve Flesch graduated from the University of Kentucky with a degree in business marketing and just the earliest seeds of a plan.
The southpaw had enjoyed success in college but wasn’t a heralded prospect when he told his father he wanted to play golf professionally. And, like most young players, he didn’t have a clue how he was going to pay for that dream.
“My dad came up with the idea and how to sell shares of myself,” Flesch said recently. “It was about me giving as much back as possible so they would stay invested. I was just looking for a chance to play because I couldn’t afford to do it and my family couldn’t afford it.”
The plan was to raise $50,000 by selling “shares” of himself for $5,000 each year to 10 different investors. His business marketing degree was immediately put to the test.
“That was a lot of money in 1990,” he recalled “You have to knock on doors for money and that’s a hard phone call to make. They need to trust you as an individual.”
He asked aunts, uncles, friends of the family and members of the club where he grew up, Summit Hills Country Club near Cincinnati, Ohio, until he finally convinced two of his father’s brothers, his mother’s brother-in-law, four cousins and three members from his club to invest.
“When I went to them, I explained I’m going to do this for five years," he said. "The nice thing was they were making their money back, so they weren’t losing everything."
Professionally, it was a slow start for Flesch. He failed to advance out of the second stage of Q-School in 1990 and again in 1991. He failed to advance to final stage again in the falls of ’92 and ’93. It would take him six attempts to finally break through to the final stage.
“Every year when I screwed up second stage of Q-School was the darkest time,” he said. “Every Nov. 10 I was thinking, Am I good enough? I breezed through first stage every time and go to second stage and play terribly. I wasn’t even close.”
In the early 1990s, the best way to reach the PGA Tour was either through a full season of success on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour or through Q-School. But Flesch needed to make it to final stage of Q-School to reach the developmental circuit. So, you can see the problem.
After bouncing around countless mini-tours in Florida, state opens and Monday qualifiers for KFT (originally the Hogan and later the Nike Tour) events, he turned to the Asia Tour.
It cost $10,000 per year to play the 10-event Asian circuit and that included all flights and accommodations. “It was like booking a cruise,” he laughed. The only thing Flesch had to pay for was his caddie and his food.
“Most weeks it was a woman who caddied. At the Indian Open, our caddie was like $2 a day. It was a crime,” he remembered.
Despite his competitive struggles, Flesch’s plan was to pay back each of his 10 investors each year in full by returning 75 percent of anything he earned until he managed to win more than he spent.
“I don’t think they ever made money on me,” he said.
In 1996 at Kiva Dunes Resort in Gulf Shores, Alabama, he finally broke through his qualifying grass ceiling and advanced to final stage of Q-School. The next year he won the then-Nike Tour Championship to earn his PGA Tour card and was voted the ’98 Tour Rookie of the Year on his way to four career victories.
It was a similar grind for eventual major champion Zach Johnson when he bolted Drake University in 1998. Like Flesch, Johnson had enjoyed a solid college career, but sponsorship offers and tournament exemptions weren’t waiting when he joined the play-for-pay ranks.
“Some people know before their senior year what they’re going to be doing,” Johnson said. “Every year in college I improved in golf, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew what it meant to turn pro, but I had no idea what it would take as far as expenditures.”
Johnson – who was considering an assistant professional job at his home club in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at the time – devised a similar “investment” plan to finance his professional ambitions. He estimated he’d need between $25,000 to $30,000 per year to compete, so he offered “shares” of himself for $500.
“I had folks who bought one share and those who bought 10 or more,” Johnson explained.
For four years after leaving college, Johnson would go through the process of selling annual shares of himself and at the end of each year he’d host a dinner for all of his investors to outline how the year had gone and the plan for the next season.
“I paid everyone back in full every year except one, 2000. On the Nike Tour I missed like 10 cuts in a row. I had conditional status. That was the one year I couldn’t pay them back their entire investment,” he recalled. “There were two years I paid back the initial investment; I think they could make back up to $1,500 per share. There were at least two years I was able to pay them back entirely. Those were on the Hooters Tour.”
Unlike Flesch, Johnson focused his energies on year-to-year improvements by playing various mini-tours in Central Florida. For three years after leaving college, he’d join a half-dozen other aspiring professionals in a three-bedroom Orlando-area condo.
“On any given night we had seven to nine guys crashing everywhere. We’d wake up and go practice and just press repeat,” he said. “We didn’t have any money.”
At the time he remembered driving a used Dodge Intrepid with far too many miles on it before he upgraded, “To another used Dodge Intrepid,” he laughed. “My uncle had a dealership.”
Johnson had plenty of success playing the mini-tours, particularly the Hooters Tour, but he understood he was playing on an investment and the play-to-pay concept was a constant reminder of how tenuous his financial situation could be.
“The beauty and the brutality of the mini-tours is you learn how to win,” Johnson said. “You really learn to cultivate the mindset to win and if you don’t, you don’t make much money. There’s an art to learning how to win.”
In 1999, Johnson won his first Hooters Tour event. The $25,000 check felt “massive.”
“I remember getting that check and my wife [Kim], who was my girlfriend at the time, was there with a friend, she was a teacher and was like, that’s almost as much as I make in a year,” he recalled. “It was a nice harsh reality there and great perspective.”
In 2003, Johnson earned status on the Korn Ferry Tour (then called the Nationwide Tour) and posted 11 top-10 finishes, along with two victories, to claim the money title and earn his PGA Tour card. The likely World Golf Hall of Fame career now features a dozen Tour titles and two majors at two of the game’s most storied venues, Augusta National and St. Andrews.
Asked, simply, if he would have been able to chase his dream without those who invested in him, Johnson was quick to answer, “nope.”
“My story is one of people. I had support, certainly as a kid with my parents,” he said. “I kept pursuing my dream out of college and I had people to help me do that. I was given so much and certainly much is expected. I can sit down and do some self-reflecting – why me? I feel I have the answers to that question but I’m a product of people that allowed me to chase that dream.”
How players pursue and finance that dream has changed dramatically over the years, but the concept is ageless – they just need the opportunity.