When it comes to golf, Jack Wyman, 28, is a bit of a late bloomer.
At Falmouth High, he was on the varsity team for four years and also competed in tennis and basketball. Then came a solid if unspectacular four-year career at Endicott College, an NCAA Division III program.
It wasn’t until after Wyman earned his master’s degree in business administration that he decided to dedicate himself to golf. He spent winters in South Carolina, working part time at a golf course and close to full time on improving his game. It paid off with consecutive Maine Amateur championships in 2017 and 2018. He also qualified for the U.S. Amateur last year.
In December, Wyman decided it was time to turn pro.
“It was kind of a now or never thing for me,” Wyman said. “I just thought that I’d done what I wanted to with my amateur career.”
The South Freeport resident is on the ground floor of professional golf. Like other new pros, he faces almost astronomical odds of making it big – or eking out a living, for that matter. For every player at the pinnacle of the sport, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of pro golfers around the globe scrambling to earn enough prize money to pay for their travel, food and entry expenses in hopes of honing their game to the exacting standards needed to make the PGA Tour.
“Professional golfers, it’s such a loose term, when so many at the end of the day probably lose money playing golf,” said Shawn Warren, 34, a club pro at Falmouth Country Club who qualified for the 2018 PGA Championship.
Wyman is one of several golfers with Maine ties who are chasing the dream. Along with Warren, he’ll be among more than 100 golfers competing Tuesday and Wednesday for the $9,000 first-place prize at the Charlie’s Maine Open in Augusta.
In his first year as a professional, Wyman has had limited success. He’s played in five state open tournaments in New England, competing against PGA club professionals, top amateurs and new pros like himself. His best finish is a tie for 11th in the New Hampshire Open. His biggest payday is $719 for a tie or 14th at the New England Open, enough to cover his entry fee and maybe the hotel costs.
Wyman has tried unsuccessfully to get into larger PGA-sanctioned events. He has taken part in Monday qualifiers, in which more than a 100 golfers pay to play 18 holes in hopes of finishing in the top four to eight spots needed to earn a berth in a tournament. His best effort came earlier this month when he went to Calgary, Alberta, to try to make a PGA Tour Canada event. He shot 1-under and missed qualifying by a stroke.
“I’m playing OK, but it’s definitely a learning curve, playing with people of a higher quality,” he said.
A COSTLY PROPOSITION
Sam Grindle, 24, of Deer Isle also will play in the Charlie’s Maine Open. He turned pro last year after graduating from Division II Rollins College in Orlando, Florida. Like Wyman, he is competing in state opens and Monday qualifiers.
Because the tournament is at Augusta Country Club, the Mainers can save on hotel expenses, but they will have to pay the $375 entry fee and factor in expenses, like meals. Grindle figures that he spends at least $700 before he’s even teed off at the other state opens he’s played in, including entry fees and a modest $100 hotel room for three nights.
Unlike athletes in many other professional sports, golfers have to cover their own costs for travel, meals, lodging and entry fees. For New England golfers, winter relocation to a warm weather state is another expense. To chase the dream costs thousands of out-of-pocket dollars, often funded initially by family members.
“It’s a lot,” said Wyman. “I’ve been very lucky to have the support of my family and clubs helping me out as far as practice and using their facilities. It’s pretty much impossible without help.”
The costs only go up when a golfer is actually on a tour.
Matt Hutchins, 22, the 2016 Maine Amateur champion and a former Falmouth resident, is a rookie on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica, where he’s made four of seven cuts but only $3,225. He does have a PGA Tour start already on his resume. In his first crack at a Monday qualifier last November, he shot a 6-under 66 and played in the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico, but did not make the 36-hole cut.
Matt Hutchins, winner of the 2016 Maine Amateur at York Golf & Tennis Club, is a rookie on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica. In seven events, he has earned $3,225. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer
Hutchins said he budgets at least $1,500 for each PGA Tour Latinoamerica event, a tour with a split-season schedule, operating from March to early June and then September to early December. This summer, Hutchins has traveled the United States trying to qualify for events on the PGA Tour and Korn Ferry Tour, the PGA’s version of Triple-A baseball. He also mixes in select open tournaments with above-average prize purses (he earned more than $5,000 by tying for third at the Greater Cedar Rapids Open in Iowa).
“Sometimes the hardest thing for pro golfers is not having enough finance to play as many events as you want,” Hutchins said. “Minimum, you comfortably have to spend $50,000 just on golf if you want to play a full schedule. It’s family support right now. At some point, I’m probably going to have to find some sponsors.”
Along with the expenses, the quality of competition increases dramatically with each advancement a pro golfer makes.
“The talent pool just grows as you go up,” Grindle said.
A TOUGH CROWD
How deep is the pool? Consider the Official World Golf Rankings, which awards points based on quality finishes on 23 tours around the globe and, for top players, provides exemptions into major championships.
Currently, 2,069 golfers have earned at least a fraction of a point in the rankings, playing on tours ranging from the PGA Tour to obscure circuits like the Big Easy in South Africa. Another 7,050 golfers, including some amateurs, are listed in the rankings because they have played in at least one recognized tour event over the past 24 months.
Hutchins is still looking for his first point. So are veterans like Warren and Bangor native Jesse Speirs, 31, who has played on three PGA developmental tours, including 17 starts in 2016 on the Korn Ferry Tour (then called the Web.com Tour).
Wyman and Grindle aren’t among the more than 9,000 golfers listed in the rankings because they’ve yet to play in a recognized tour event. There is no clear way to estimate how many pros are on the ground floor, like Wyman and Grindle.
So how does a golfer advance in the sport?
It usually starts with the infamously challenging, four-stage PGA qualifying process, known as Q School.
Prior to 2013, if a player made the final cut at Q School, he would go directly to the PGA Tour. Now, the top-level Q School only gets players to the Korn Ferry Tour.
Q School annually draws about 1,200 applicants. At each stage, the field is bolstered by players who were exempt from the previous stage based on their accomplishments. Each stage has its own entry fee. Players good enough to reach the final stage will spend $13,500 to $14,000.
“If you advance, you’re not just going up against the same guys who made it through with you,” said Grindle, who will make his first Q School attempt this fall. “You’re going up against guys who just missed the PGA Tour exemption, or aren’t in the top of the Korn Ferry standings.”
The players with the least status, like Grindle, start at one of five 54-hole prequalifying sites. About half will advance to one of 12 “First Stage” tournaments, playing 72 holes. Each First Stage qualifier sends 21-24 players to five Second Stage tournaments. It takes a top-20 Second Stage finish to advance to the Final Stage, which will include another influx of touring pros to fill a field of roughly 140 players.
Reaching the final stage earns conditional status on the Korn Ferry Tour, but only the top 40 at the Final Stage are assured a half-season or more of starts. (Advancement to the PGA Tour requires being in the top 25 on the regular-season Korn Ferry money list, with 25 more spots available in a four-tournament playoff structure.)
Hutchins will travel to Nevada in October for a First Stage Q School event. Last year, in his first crack at Q School, he shot 10-under in the First Stage but still missed advancing by six shots.
Wyman will be going to Q School for a second time. Last fall, he competed as an amateur. He made it out of prequalifying and tied for 48th in a First Stage tournament, scoring 5-over. The winner was 16-under, and it took 4-under to advance.
Warren plans to return to Q School this fall for the first time since 2015. From 2012-15, Warren advanced to the Second Stage.
“The closest I came to making it to Final Stage was two strokes, and the most I ever missed was by six strokes,” Warren said. “That’s a putt here, a chip there, over four rounds. It ends up being a world of difference, but at the end of the day, it’s not a very large margin.”
FINE LINE BETWEEN GOOD AND GREAT
Warren, a 2003 Windham High grad who lives in Portland, is arguably the most competitive and accomplished professional who calls Maine home. He has been named the PGA New England Player of the Year four times (2013, 2014, 2015, 2018) and played in the 2018 PGA Championship, one of golf’s four majors. Earlier this month, he scorched the back nine at Manchester Country Club in Bedford, New Hampshire, shooting a 5-under 30 as he rallied to win his second PGA New England Sectional Championship by a stroke, earning a $12,000.
After chasing mini-tour events and Monday qualifiers full time for “a few years,” following a four-year college career at Marshall, Warren decided to become a PGA club professional, which would provide steady income and make him eligible to play in PGA-sponsored events designed for club professionals.
Warren believes there is very little difference between his ability and those of players on the top tours. His tee shots travel well over 300 yards. With money on the line, as there was earlier this month in New Hampshire, he has learned how to win.
“I would say it’s an extremely fine line,” Warren said. “It’s about getting an opportunity, and then when you do get it, it’s taking advantage. There’s not much difference by the eye test. It’s that they’ve done it. Where I’ve had a few near misses by a few strokes, they’ve done it and gotten their tour card.”
Samoset Resort assistant pro Jeff Seavey, 53, chased his own playing goals for several years in the early 2000s as a regular on the now-defunct Cleveland Golf Tour, a New England-based circuit. Now Seavey is regarded as one of the top golf instructors in Maine, working with reigning Maine Amateur champion Cole Anderson, who will begin his college career at Florida State this fall.
“There’s thousands of golfers who can hit the ball long. You watch them hit and say, ‘I can’t believe they’re not on tour,’” Seavey said. “But it’s not just the ability to hit the ball. It’s the ability to hit the ball under pressure. There’s plenty of guys who can shoot 66 at the local club on a Saturday with their buddies. But there’s much fewer who can do it on Sunday, even at a mini-tour event. When you tee it up on the Korn Ferry Tour, every one of those guys have won dozens of mini-tour events, and now the question is, can you be the guy who separates yourself.”
To reach the ultimate goal of playing on the PGA Tour, Maine’s aspiring pros will have to leapfrog many players. This year, 434 players made a cut and earned money at a PGA Tour event. The Korn Ferry Tour had 270 money-earners this season, as did 176 and 163 players, respectively, on the PGA Canada and PGA Latinoamerica circuits.
Most will discover they can’t make that jump. Then comes the difficult decision of when to stop trying.
Ryan Gay won three Maine Amateurs by age 20 before turning pro after college. Now 29, he gave up his pursuit of professional golf. “To be honest, I was never that close to making a splash at the professional level.” Andy Molloy/Morning Sentinel
Ryan Gay, 28, made that call in 2016 after nearly three years of travel across North America and Europe. At Gardiner High, Gay “was the prodigy,” according to Wyman. Gay won three high school titles and three Maine Amateurs by the time he was 20, and was on a full golf scholarship at the University of New Mexico for three years before graduating from St. John’s University. After college, he went right to the pro ranks. But swing changes and putting woes stalled his progress. The money he had saved while on scholarship was running out. After an unsuccessful bid to qualify at the European Tour Q school, Gay decided it was time to change careers. He’s now managing a sales force for a start-up software company in Boston.
“To be honest, I was never that close to making a splash at the professional level,” Gay said.
Gay said he thinks Wyman was wise to wait to turn pro.
“I respect the way Jack did things, because as you’re older and more matured, you understand how to play the game better,” Gay said.
Wyman’s first year as a pro has stiffened his resolve.
“You have to get out of that easy road of thinking about how hard it is,” Wyman said. “I look at it as, man, my life could be very different if I play well for a week, or play well in a Monday qualifier. And, I play because I think I can pull it together. The good thing about golf is, there’s no politics. It’s just a number. It doesn’t care if you’re some kid from Maine or some prodigy from California.”