SPORTS

Have clubs, will travel

Struggling golf pros pursue their dreams on the Canadian Tour

JAMES DEACON July 31 1995
SPORTS

Have clubs, will travel

Struggling golf pros pursue their dreams on the Canadian Tour

JAMES DEACON July 31 1995

Have clubs, will travel

SPORTS

Out on the practice green, the young men who ply the minor leagues of golf are honing their games prior to the start of the Infiniti Championship. The presence of fans and sponsors’ banners announces that a tournament is on, but it is a far cry from the lavish PGA Tour or the British Open being played the same weekend. The event is being staged at the grandly named Royal Woodbine Golf Club, a public course that is deafeningly close to the runways of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and across the street from a hydro substation. The entrants in the tournament come from all over—the United States, Mexico,

Europe, Australia, New Zealand,

Africa and, of course, Canada.

But they have much in common.

In the uniform of their sport— polo shirts, cotton pants and sponsors’ caps—they crouch over putt after putt, searching for the stroke that will consistently deliver the ball to the hole under pressure. A shot here and a shot there are all that keeps them from getting to the big-money U.S. Tour—at least, that’s what they keep telling themselves.

“I’m here to learn, to get better, to move on,” says Ian Leggatt, a 29-year-old from Cambridge,

Ont. ‘We all are.”

To most Canadian fans, professional golf consists of the PGA and LPGA Tours, which can be seen on TV on most weekends. But fewer than 600 golfers have been able to play their way onto the U.S. tours. The thousands of professionals who dream of climbing to the top instead compete on smaller circuits around the world.

As a result, many of the men on the 11-toumament Canadian Tour that travels west to east from June through August spent the early months of the year playing similar circuits in South Africa or Asia, or the so-called minitours in parts of the United States. The lure is not the money: tournament winners on the Canadian circuit get paid $18,000 to $22,000, about one-tenth the payouts on the PGA tour. Six tournaments into the Canadian season, the leading money-winner, Trevor Dodds of Namibia, had won a total of $43,193.75—little more than double his expenses. “It’s expensive, all the travel,” says Ian Hutchings, a 27year-old Zimbabwean who stood second on

Struggling golf pros pursue their dreams on the Canadian Tour

the money list with $40,172.50 last week. “You really have to want to be here.”

The Canadian Tour is not rich, but it offers substantially more than the du Maurier Ltd. Series, the only developmental events in Canada for women professionals. Started by former pro Jocelyne Bourassa in 1989, the series has grown from one event with 25 players to five events with up to 60 competitors each; its top prizes, however, are a modest $3,500. The men’s circuit is also improved from a decade ago, when there were few tournaments, fewer sponsors and no tour organization. Led by founding commissioner Bob Beauchemin and the current

commissioner, Dick Grimm, the Canadian Tour has grown into one of the preferred second-tier circuits in the world. From eight tournaments and a total purse of $470,000 in 1986, the Tour now offers 11 events and $1.3 million in prize money. As well, players now get discounted rates at certain hotels and on Canadian Airlines, and representatives from equipment companies such as Titleist and Maxfli hand out free gear before each round. “For a lot of the guys, the transition to professional golf can have a few hiccups along the way,” says Beauchemin. “They need places like this to learn to compete, and they need to be able to make a living.”

Despite the financial discrepancies, there is little that separates the top Canadian Tour players from their more illustrious counterparts. Hutchings’s leading average score of 69.04 for 18 holes in Canada is just shy of Greg Norman’s PGA Tour-best 68.97. But close is not good enough in golf. South African Manny Zerman, 25, competed head to head with Phil Mickelson while the two were giants of U.S. college golf. But while Mickelson has become one of America’s biggest stars since graduating, Zerman has not been able to earn his PGA Tour card. Instead, he is travelling across Canada, staying with friends when he can and, like everyone else, trying to win. “It’s not really a shock,” the San Diego resident says of his modest existence. “I look at it as a place to learn and to get better. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Canada or Asia or Europe.” The dream of making it into the big leagues does not die easily. The players are encouraged by the success of Canadian Tour graduates such as New Zealander Grant Waite and Americans Mike Springer and Mike Heinen, who have all gone on to win in the United States. Another alumnus, Steve Strieker, has earned more than $400,000 on the PGA Tour this season. South African Roger Wessels, who played in Canada in 1994, is now competing on the European Tour. Leggatt, who plans to play qualifying tournaments in the autumn to gain a berth on the U.S. tour, says it is time to write a Canadian success story. “If one of us becomes a Top 10 player in the world, it will do a lot for Canadian golf,” he says. Hutchings, who once aspired to the European Tour, is also aiming for the U.S. Tour after playing in last year’s Canadian Open. “It was my first PGA Tour event,” he said during a brief stop in the lunch tent last week, “and I’ll tell you, those guys don’t know how good they’ve got it.” With that, he headed back out to the practice green.

JAMES DEACON