The road to the PGA Tour has evolved considerably in the last two decades, but the expense and inventive ways that would-be professionals come up with to fund their dreams span generations.
Young professionals today face a daunting, if not predictable, path to the big leagues through a plethora of minor leagues, which 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 only the beginnings of a plan.
When he told his father he wanted to play golf professionally, the southpaw had had success in college but wasn’t a highly touted prospect. And, like the majority of young athletes, he had no idea how he was going to pay for his goal.
Flesch previously stated, “My father came up with the idea and how to sell shares of myself.” “It was all about my giving back as much as I could in order for them to stay invested.” I was only seeking for an opportunity to play because I couldn’t afford it and neither could my family.”
The aim was to raise $50,000 by selling $5,000 “shares” of himself to ten different investors each year. His marketing degree in business was immediately put to the test.
He remembered, “That was a lot of money in 1990.” “To get money, you have to knock on doors, and that’s a difficult phone call to make.” They must have faith in you as a person.”
He enlisted the help of relatives, uncles, family friends, and members of his childhood club, Summit Hills Country Club outside Cincinnati, Ohio, until he was able to persuade two of his father’s brothers, his mother’s brother-in-law, four cousins, and three club members to invest.
He explained, “When I went to them, I explained them I’m going to do this for five years.” “The good news was that they got their money back, so they weren’t out of pocket.”
Flesch had a sluggish start in his professional life. In 1990 and 1991, he was unable to progress through the second stage of Q-School. In the fall of 1992 and 1993, he failed to move to the final stage once more. It would take him six tries to ultimately make it to the final level.
“It was the darkest period every year when I screwed up second level of Q-School,” he stated. “Every November 10th, I wondered if I was good enough. Every time I breezed past the first stage, I moved on to the second stage and played horribly. I didn’t even come close.”
In the early 1990s, the only way to get on the PGA Tour was to win a full season on the now-defunct Korn Ferry Tour or to go through Q-School. Flesch, on the other hand, needed to make it to the developing circuit by completing the last step of Q-School. As you can see, there is an issue.
He turned to the Asia Tour after bouncing around various mini-tours in Florida, state openers, and Monday qualifying for KFT (initially the Hogan and then the Nike Tour) events.
The 10-event Asian circuit cost $10,000 per year, which included all flights and lodging. He chuckled, “It was like booking a cruise.” The only expenses Flesch had to cover were his caddie and meals.
“Most of the time, a woman caddied. Our caddie at the Indian Open was about $2 each day. “It was a heinous act,” he recalled.
Despite his competitive difficulties, Flesch’s objective was to repay each of his ten investors in full each year by returning 75% of any earnings until he was able to win more than he spent.
“I don’t believe they ever profited from me,” he stated.
He ultimately broke past his qualifying grass ceiling and went to the final stage of Q-School in 1996 at Kiva Dunes Resort in Gulf Shores, Alabama. He earned his PGA Tour card the following year by winning the Nike Tour Championship and was named Tour Rookie of the Year in 1998, on his route to four career triumphs.
When eventual major champion Zach Johnson left Drake University in 1998, he faced a similar struggle. Johnson, like Flesch, had a strong collegiate career, but sponsorship offers and tournament exemptions were not waiting for him when he entered the pay-to-play levels.
“Some folks know what they want to accomplish before their senior year,” Johnson added. “I became better at golf every year in college, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” I understood what it meant to go pro, but I had no idea how much money it would cost.”
Johnson, who at the time was considering a position as an assistant professional at his local club in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, designed a similar “investment” strategy to fund his professional dreams. To compete, he thought he’d need between $25,000 and $30,000 per year, so he sold “shares” of himself for $500 each.
“I had people buy one share and people buy ten or more,” Johnson explained.
Johnson would sell annual shares of himself for four years after graduating from college, and at the conclusion of each year, he’d have a dinner for all of his investors to discuss how the year had gone and the plan for the next season.
“With the exception of 2000, I paid everyone back in full every year.” I must have missed ten cuts in a row on the Nike Tour. I was on a temporary basis. He remembered, “That was the one year I couldn’t pay them back their entire investment.” “I paid back the initial investment in two years; I believe they might recoup up to $1,500 per share.” I was able to completely repay them after at least two years. That was during the Hooters Tour.”
Unlike Flesch, Johnson focused his efforts on year-over-year progress by participating in numerous Central Florida mini-tours. He’d live in a three-bedroom Orlando condo with a half-dozen other ambitious professionals for three years after graduating from college.
“We had seven to nine guys crashing everywhere on any given night.” “We’d get up, go to practice, and then repeat,” he recalled. “We were cash-strapped.”
He laughed as he recalled driving an old Dodge Intrepid with way too many miles on it before upgrading to “another used Dodge Intrepid.” “My uncle used to own a car dealership.”
Johnson enjoyed a lot of success on the mini-tours, especially the Hooters Tour, but he was well aware that he was gambling, and the play-to-pay notion was a continuous reminder of how precarious his financial situation could be.
“The beauty and cruelty of the mini-tours is that they teach you how to win,” Johnson explained. “You really learn to create a winning mindset, and if you don’t, you’re not going to make a lot of money.” Learning how to win is an art form.”
Johnson won his first Hooters Tour tournament in 1999. The $25,000 check was “huge.”
“I remember getting that cheque and my girlfriend [Kim] was there with a friend, she was a teacher, and she was like, that’s almost as much as I make in a year,” he remembered. “It was a terrific viewpoint and a nice brutal realism there.”
Johnson received his PGA Tour card in 2003 after winning the money championship on the Korn Ferry Tour (formerly known as the Nationwide Tour) with 11 top-10 finishes and two victories. A dozen Tour championships and two majors at two of the game’s most renowned sites, Augusta National and St. Andrews, round out a potential World Golf Hall of Fame career.
Johnson was quick to respond, “nope,” when asked if he would have been able to pursue his dream without the help of people who believed in him.
“It’s a story about people in my life.” “I had a lot of support growing up, especially from my parents,” he remarked. “After college, I continued to pursue my passion with the aid of others.” I’ve been given a lot, and there’s a lot more to come. Why should I sit down and perform some self-reflection? I believe I have the answers to that question, but I’m a product of those who gave me the opportunity to pursue that ambition.”
The way players chase and finance their dreams has evolved tremendously over time, but the premise remains the same — all they need is the chance.