LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA | While Tiger Woods, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy and others were busy on Torrey Pines’ South Course during the Saturday round at the recent Farmers Insurance Open, another meaningful tournament was being played without any cameras, without any galleries and just a fraction of the money at stake on the adjacent North Course, where the big tour had played one day earlier.
Both were big deals.
The smaller event was a one-day, 27-hole tournament on the Advocates Professional Golf Association tour, an aspirational mini-tour whose mission is to bring greater diversity to golf through events, player-development programs and mentoring initiatives.
That the tour set up shoulder to shoulder with the PGA Tour for one day was an acknowledgement of what the 11-year old APGA, where Tony Finau and Harold Varner III have played, is doing.
The tour consists of eight events annually with a total purse of more than $250,000. It’s not the big leagues. There are no courtesy cars or lunch buffets, no television contracts or entourages.
There is, however, a schedule that will culminate in August with one player – last year it was Willie Mack III – winning the season-long Lexus Cup points race.
The APGA is an avenue into the game for minority players, a chance to make some money, find out who’s good enough and to give African-American players another place to chase their dreams. The APGA and the PGA Tour have had a strategic partnership since 2012.
At Torrey Pines, the distance between the two tours has never been shorter in a literal sense. But the divide remains as immense as ever.
“It’s OK to peek. It’s OK to see yourself out there with them,” said Kamaiu Johnson, an APGA member who competed at Torrey Pines.
“I think that’s motivational. I have a lot of times where I can see myself out there, envision it and try to bring it to life, definitely.”
Every day is another chance to get better, another opportunity to see what happens on the golf course. For African-American players, it’s a meaningful step on the path toward changing the face of the game.
Tim O’Neal, who has been playing professional golf on various tours for about half of his 47 years, won the Torrey Pines event and scored a $7,000 payday while Phil Mickelson was heading to Saudi Arabia for a reported seven-figure appearance fee in the European Tour event there.
Led by CEO Ken Bentley, who is a board member of Tiger Woods’ TGR Foundation and vice chairman of the Fire Insurance Exchange (part of Farmers Insurance), the APGA has, among its goals, expanding the number of minorities eventually playing on the PGA Tour.
As on other mini-tours, succeeding is difficult for players scratching for playing opportunities and paychecks.
“It’s all a grind,” Johnson said. “The easiest part is waking up. The way I look at it, if I’m not getting better, there’s somebody that is.”
Johnson, Mack and others play other mini-tours. They try to Monday qualify for Korn Ferry Tour events – Mack shot 60 in a qualifier last year – and they keep their eyes trained toward the Korn Ferry Tour Q-School later in the year, seeing it as the next potentially big step in their respective careers.
Mack, for example, won 12 college tournaments playing at Bethune-Cookman. He is the only African-American to have won the Michigan Amateur Championship (2011). He turned pro in 2012 and led the Florida Professional Golf Tour money list one year.
Growing up in Flint, Mich., Mack was initially inspired by Woods and grew up playing on a par-3 municipal course. When Bethune-Cookman offered him a chance to play golf in warm weather, Mack jumped.
Mack said he hasn’t had a sponsor in five years, paying his own expenses.
“I play as much as I can,” Mack said. “In the summers, I travel around and just try to play anything I can until Q-School and the bigger events.
“The last couple of months have been good but throughout a whole year, if you can break even, that’s good.”
The APGA, Mack said, has been a blessing.
“They look out for us,” Mack said.
Johnson, 26, says golf saved his life. Living in Tallahassee, Fla., Johnson had dropped out of school and was swinging a stick outside the apartment complex where he lived when the general manager of a nearby golf course noticed him.
She offered him golf for $1 a day at Hilaman Golf Course in Tallahassee.
“Pretty much had a big part in saving my life,” Johnson said. “I had just gotten back from the 2006 Dizzy Dean Baseball World Series. I had probably never been on a golf course until I was 13. I was intrigued by the golfers and said I wanted to do it.”
When Johnson looked around, he knew he was different.
“I didn’t see, you know, not anyone that looked like me. But that never bothered me. I was in love with the game,” Johnson said.
Sitting together at Torrey Pines, Mack and Johnson shared their stories and the challenges they still face. It’s a familiar story for mini-tour players whose dreams and desire are usually bigger than their bank accounts.
Johnson has family members who work for Marriott, which helps him get better rates. He doesn’t get to keep his hotel points but it’s a willing trade-off.
Mack travels with someone who gets good hotel rates as well. At Torrey Pines, he was able to get a room at a Hilton for $45 a night.
It’s not always that way.
“Staying three, four, five players in a little room sometimes, it sucks, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” Mack said.
The old rules still apply – highest score sleeps on the floor. Actually, it’s usually a cot these days, but it doesn’t feel good on a golfer’s back the next morning.
“No, it don’t,” Mack said.
Every day, though, is another chance to get better, another opportunity to see what happens on the golf course. For African-American players, it’s a meaningful step on the path toward changing the face of the game.
“I want to see more diversity in this game,” Johnson said. “I want to see somebody that looks like me, that’s huge.
“I want to see us get out there. That would be awesome.”
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