DALLAS, TEXAS | Sitting on the back patio of the clubhouse at Trinity Forest Golf Club on Wednesday, Todd Balkin watched a steady rain form a flowing river down the course’s 18th fairway.
The last practice day before the AT&T Byron Nelson had been washed away. The electricity in the air provided brief flashes of light to fully capture the grim conditions, but all Balkin could think about was his own perfectly timed lightning strike.
“Growing up, my friends and I would be drinking beers, staying up all night watching golf,” Balkin said. “And we always imagined what it would be like out here.”
The 28-year-old Australian had never played in a PGA Tour event before because he had never attempted to qualify for one. That changed three days ago when Balkin, an assistant PGA professional at Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas, tried his first Monday qualifier after a fellow North Texas PGA club pro withdrew due to injury and a spot opened in the event.
He had never seen the qualifier course and couldn’t play a practice round because he had to work last Sunday. His caddie and best friend since he was 12, Elliott Sullivan, had never seen the course either. Adding to his long-shot odds was the fact that Balkin hadn’t played spectacular golf lately. His three individual rounds were 71, 74 and 75. In a recent section team event, he finished tied for 11th and won all of $60. He was the No. 6 player in the section’s point standings last year, but by no means has he dominated at the club professional level.
In team sports, it’s typically a general manager or coach who decides whether you earn a roster spot. In golf, the most democratic of all games, it is completely based on merit. Balkin started with a 3-under 33 on his opening nine and then hit a couple of darts in his final three holes – a towering 7-iron over a tree to 6 feet on No. 16 may have been the shot of the day – to set up two more birdies.
Balkin posted a 5-under 67 and earned a spot in the Byron Nelson field as one of the top four finishers in the 69-man qualifier. He is now bumping elbows on the range with Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth. Since earning his golden ticket, people from every part of his life have been showing their support in droves. Especially many Royal Oaks members who are part of the Salesmanship Club of Dallas, the host organization of the Byron Nelson.
“Everyone who comes into the pro shop, we are telling them about Todd,” says fellow Royal Oaks assistant professional Abel Hernandez.
Instead of giving lessons on Tuesday, he played a practice round with countryman John Senden and the No. 31 player in the world, Rafa Cabrera-Bello. Two of Balkin’s closest friends from Australia seriously considered making the trip to Texas for the tournament, but they have settled for a group text and what will be intense scoreboard watching when their best mate fulfills a lifelong dream starting Thursday morning.
“He worked his butt off to get to this point,” Sullivan said. “His game has been strong enough for a while, so I’m not surprised he was able to do this.”
His path to the Byron Nelson started relatively late at age 14, when he decided to join his dad on the course one afternoon. Golf quickly became an obsession for Balkin and his friends, so much so that they came together with the perfect formula to earn money while also having time to practice. A local Asian Tour player owned a pizza restaurant franchise named Eagle Boys and suggested that the teenagers could take turns managing the store at night. Balkin spent nearly five years there, all in the name of sacrificing so he could play golf.
“We had a blast working at night, playing in the afternoon,” Balkin said. “The social life kind of got cut out of it, but that’s what we needed to do to get better at golf. At the time I didn’t think it was a great job, but it really shaped how I manage my time and dealing with a lot of other things.”
After graduating from high school, Balkin realized playing college golf in the United States would offer him the best chance to play professionally. He put his name into a scholarship portal and received an offer from Florida State, which boasted one of the best programs in the country. But Balkin valued the chance to play more than trying to compete for a roster spot at a powerhouse, a philosophy that led him to select Oklahoma Baptist University.
Balkin didn’t have time to make the long and expensive trip to the United States to visit schools, so his first trip to Oklahoma Baptist was when he enrolled in 2010.
“I grew up five minutes from the beach my whole life,” Balkin said. “So then I take a plane from Australia to LA to Oklahoma and I was like, ‘I don’t know what I got myself into here.’ But I had great teammates and that was the kicker. Without friends like that, there’s no way I could have done it. There were times when I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep going with it, but I’m glad I did.”
“I have a firm belief that I can compete and play anywhere in the world. I’m not saying I can compete on this stage week in and week out yet, but I can try the Asian Tour or another developmental tour and see what happens.” – Todd Balkin
Balkin was a three-time NAIA All-American and led the team in stroke average his senior year with a mark under 70. He did what he set out to do, improving his average by at least one stroke per year.
There are a lot of players like Balkin who have success in college and then feel prepared to take on professional golf. What isn’t always immediately clear is the financial commitment required just to have a fighting chance. Balkin understandably didn’t want family or friends to bankroll his attempt to reach the big time, so upon moving back to Australia, he started to work two jobs.
“My goal was to get to the Latin America tour, so I set my budget and what I needed to make,” Balkin said. “I worked at a golf course during the day and as a bartender at a pub at night. I needed the money because no one was giving me the cash, which was OK, but I thought if I just keep playing well then something good will happen.”
Nothing happened. Balkin came close to quitting out of frustration. And with the two jobs, his golf game started to deteriorate. He would open the golf shop at 6 a.m., work there until 12 p.m., practice at the course until 6 p.m., bartend until 11 p.m., go to the gym at 11:30 p.m., and then finally fall asleep around 2 a.m. to close his day. It wasn’t sustainable.
As he approached his boiling point in 2015, Balkin received a phone call that would alter his life. The head professional at Shawnee Country Club in Oklahoma, where Balkin used to practice, recommended that he come back to the U.S. to give professional golf a real try. What Balkin didn’t know is that the pro had submitted his name for a club professional job at Preston Trail Golf Club in Dallas. Shortly after, the phone rang asking Balkin to come in for an interview.
Sullivan, who had moved to Dallas and knew of the course’s reputation, implored Balkin to do whatever it took to get the job. He was offered the job on the spot after the interview, and it started a new chapter in his life. He got through the PGA of America education program in two and a half years, becoming a PGA professional who now appreciates running a golf tournament or teaching a lesson. In 2017 he moved on to Royal Oaks, where fellow Aussie Dean Larsson is the head professional. He is settling down in Dallas with his wife of four months.
But what about the goal of becoming a tour professional? He worked so vigorously and never got a real chance to chase it.
“That’s the battle. As a club professional, you work weird hours, holidays, weekends, so it’s hard to find time to work on my game,” Balkin said. “For the better club pros, we can all still play. I would be lying to everyone if I said the goal wasn’t to play on the PGA Tour. I love being around golf and that’s why I am a club pro, but the goal is still to get out here and play.
“I have a firm belief that I can compete and play anywhere in the world. I’m not saying I can compete on this stage week in and week out yet, but I can try the Asian Tour or another developmental tour and see what happens.”
As for this week in his PGA Tour debut, Balkin is playing with house money. He hasn’t played many 18-hole rounds lately, but that doesn’t rattle his foundation. This week, he will live out a fantasy, a culmination of every second he has pushed just for the hope this day would come.
Before heading home Wednesday, Balkin took one last look out at the 18th fairway.
“I want to be walking down that fairway on Sunday afternoon,” he said.
Todd Balkin, a 28-year-old Australian, will play in his first PGA Tour event this week after being successful in his first attempt to qualify for one. Photo: Courtesy North Texas PGA
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