Chasing a dream on golf's mini-tours

Apr 20 2012 - 3:48pm

SEATTLE -- James Lepp, the University of Washington golfer who won the 2005 NCAA championship, thinks it's funny when a big deal is made about the pressure of a valuable putt on the PGA Tour.

"It might be $400,000 if you make it, and $200,000 if you miss," said Lepp, who spent time on the Canadian Tour. "That's a nice problem to have. On the Canadian Tour, pressure is a $1,000 putt that means you can pay your hotel bills."

Welcome to golf's minor leagues, where hundreds of hopefuls bring their dreams.

Many LPGA and PGA Tour stars are veterans of the mini-tours, but for every one who makes it big, there are scores who fall short.

Renee Skidmore of Everett, Wash., won her second career event in Florida's Suncoast Ladies Series in January, but the winning check was $2,000. She had to pay $400 to enter. To keep her dream alive, she has a side job.

T.J. Bordeaux moved across country and is using his life savings in pursuit of playing on the PGA Tour.

"When I tell people I am a professional golfer, they think Tiger Woods and the glamorous lifestyle. But there is nothing glamorous about this at all," said Bordeaux, the former star at Pacific University who is now playing on the National Golf Association (formerly Hooters) Pro Golf Tour.

Bordeaux and Skidmore are confident they will reach the PGA and LPGA tours, but during rough times they could look at the career path of Troy Kelly for inspiration.

After leaving UW following the 2000 season, Kelly toiled on several mini-tours, including the Canadian Tour, the Gateway Tour, the Golden State Tour and the Nationwide Tour.

Kelly, 33, even quit for a brief time in 2004 and worked in construction, but the dream never died. It seems that all the years in golf's bush leagues have paid off. Kelly had a breakout year in 2011 on the Nationwide Tour, the Class AAA of the mini-tours, and earned his PGA Tour card for the second time by finishing in the top 25 on the money list.

"I've had my ups and my downs, but I think the experiences that I have had getting here will help me," he said.

Bordeaux, of Tacoma, Wash., has trained himself not to think about money while he is playing -- but that's about the only time it's not on his mind, he said.

"When I'm done, I'll be paying attention to the leaderboard, because even $200 or $250 can make a difference," he said.

Bordeaux, 23, turned pro after last summer, took his life savings along with some money his grandfather gave him, and moved thousands of miles from his comfort zone to Florida.

"I wanted to be uncomfortable and learn to adapt," Bordeaux said. "I wanted to get the hard stuff done early and learn to play on different grasses and different course conditions. I really had never played on Bermuda grass, and you've got to learn sometime."

Bordeaux won a Winter Series event on the NGA Tour in January. He earned $13,500.

"The money is first and foremost on your mind," he said. "You have to make the money to keep your dream alive. By winning, I have enough to start the summer off."

Bordeaux was living in Orange City, Fla., but is now playing in the NGA's Pro Series, where he hopes to play about 15 to 17 events. Home will be the city he is playing in that week, where he will stay with a host family or in a hotel.

Not only does he have to pay all of his travel expenses, but it also costs $2,000 to join the NGA and the entry fee into Pro Series events is $800. The prize money comes out of entry fees. Bordeaux gets his equipment free from Titleist, but has to pay for just about everything else, including range balls.

Not even the top players are getting rich on most mini-tours. Lepp said about 10 percent of the players on the Canadian Tour are making money, "if that."

Most players on the low-level tours do not use caddies, and they ride carts.

"You usually have two players in one cart, and the other cart is a single," Kelly said. "It's not good sharing, because you can be with a guy who is losing it, and he might be slamming clubs."

Kelly made $248,064 last year on the Nationwide Tour (11th on the money list), and said a player on that tour needs to earn at least $150,000 to make a decent living after all of the travel expenses.

It's no wonder, then, that Skidmore has to work as a forecaddie at Old Palm Country Club in Palm Gardens, Fla., to keep her dream alive.

Skidmore, 26, was a golf star and senior class president at Cascade High School in Everett. In 2009, she played in eight LPGA Futures Tour events and didn't make a cent, but she kept on working.

Skidmore remains determined to reach the LPGA Tour, even though she did not get past Stage 2 at LPGA qualifying school last year.

"I was disappointed, but on the flip side it was a great learning experience," she said. "I worked hard in the offseason, worked on my fitness, got stronger and worked on my mental game. It's one thing to say you have confidence, and another thing to really believe it."

Skidmore, who models clothes for Shi-Golf, has conditional status on the LPGA Futures Tour this year and also is looking ahead to another shot at LPGA Qualifying School.

Despite being on the PGA Tour, Kelly still makes all of his travel arrangements, with the only big difference being courtesy cars at tournament sites.

Buying plane tickets is a bit of a gamble, Kelly said, particularly if he misses a cut and wants to leave early.

"Then they nail you on the change of tickets, and your bags are always overweight because of your golf stuff, and that can be $150," he said.

Kelly, who has made four cuts in eight events this year for earnings of $54,718, marvels at the differences between players' financial situations, even on the PGA Tour.

"You've got your gazillionaires who are in their private jets, then you got the rookies who are just getting started, and then you got guys like me who are still trying to make it," he said.

The mini-tours provide invaluable experience of playing in tournaments in pressure situations. And the one thing they have over the major tours is camaraderie.

"You're still trying to beat each other's brains out, but then again you're also pulling for one another," Kelly said. "On the mini-tours, you hang out with the guys, you have fun together and you make a lot of friends. On the PGA Tour, there is a lot of money to be made, and the guys take it very serious."

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