The hope for Korn Ferry Tour players such as Vince India is that the season resumes June 11 with the Korn Ferry Challenge at TPC Sawgrass, one of five new events added to combat a layoff that has already stretched more than two months.
If that restart occurs, and the 17 remaining events can be played without significant interruption, a long list of pros who depend on prize money to pay their bills will consider themselves incredibly fortunate. But that doesn’t mean they are banking on coming back in June. The looming uncertainty has players in an awkward position of wanting to play so they can keep money coming in but not wanting to put themselves or others in danger.
“The rollout is a little bit optimistic in my opinion,” India said. “Everyone wants to play golf, but there are so many things that still need to happen before we can. You can’t tee up a golf ball without guaranteeing the safety of players, caddies and everyone who is working there.”
India, who has made 97 starts on the Korn Ferry Tour and came agonizingly close to earning his PGA Tour card last fall, can explain better than anyone how razor thin the margins are on golf’s minor-league circuit. In unprecedented times like these, those margins are being strained for some and broken for others.
During the forced suspension, the Korn Ferry Tour has given 130 of its players – those fully exempt and eligible for health subsidies – $5,000 each. That money is of major assistance, but it comes with the prospect that playing the tour will likely become more expensive in the short term.
Consider the typical breakdown of costs for these players who normally travel to smaller, more remote cities while playing for purses around $600,000. Keep in mind that the smallest purse on the PGA Tour last year was $3 million. The median PGA Tour purse was $7.5 million.
“Our expenses are within maybe $500 to $700 of what a PGA Tour player spends each week, but they are usually playing for 10 times more,” India explained. “If you go down to the Bahamas and miss the cut, you are automatically $2,000 or $2,500 in the hole. We have to get creative to find ways to save money.”
India tries to stay in private housing every week and has made friends at most of the tour’s stops, allowing him to play without spending money on a hotel. He says that saves him about $500 a week, not including when the families he stays with offer meals.
Even if golf returns, India, like many other players who utilize the same strategy, is concerned that those same families won’t want to host a traveling golfer, especially if the family has high-risk people in the home.
“I can’t imagine someone saying to me, ‘Hey, Vince, come stay with me for a week,’ ” India said.
That may not be a consideration on the PGA Tour, but it’s a significant one at golf’s lower levels, where even saving a few bucks on meals is meaningful.
“If you were to put me in a guy’s shoes who was in the top five (of the points list), obviously I would be a little upset.” – Jake Knapp
Adding to the foggy outlook for the Korn Ferry Tour is a new schedule that won’t reward 50 PGA Tour cards – 25 at the conclusion of the regular season and 25 after the Korn Ferry Tour Finals – as it has in past years.
The new setup is fair, simple and logical, and it may be enough to convince players to be patient in their returns to the tour. No player will lose his status this year and no player will advance to the PGA Tour, either. The top 10 players will receive some starts into opposite field events on the PGA Tour next season, but their status will be with the Korn Ferry Tour.
That has created a massive wraparound season, one that continues until fall 2021. If all goes according to plan, the standard procedure for awarding PGA Tour cards will be back in place.
Jake Knapp, a 25-year-old out of UCLA, won twice on the Mackenzie Tour last summer to earn his rookie campaign on the Korn Ferry Tour. He sees the wraparound season as the best possible alternative to an unfavorable situation.
“If you were to put me in a guy’s shoes who was in the top five (of the points list), obviously I would be a little upset,” Knapp said. “But I look at the other side. Think about a guy who graduated from the Korn Ferry Tour last year. I mean, you can’t give a guy his PGA Tour card, take away two or three months in his rookie season and say, ‘Oh, sorry, you got the short end of the stick.’ And I’m a Korn Ferry Tour rookie, so I don’t want that either. It wouldn’t be fair to have to go back to Q-School after having so much time taken away.”
Knapp also said that he wasn’t feeling fully healthy and didn’t think he could play for a long stretch of time, so he has been viewing the layoff as a positive for the time being. He’s enjoyed posting a few videos on Instagram of him hitting into a net out on the backyard of his California home — in one, his Trackman numbers showed a clubhead speed of 125 mph and a total yardage of 350 yards.
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Had the legend himself @johnortega_pga over today to take a look at the quarantine move and just spend some quality (6ft apart) time together. Let me know if you think we should do an instagram live together during a practice session. #LTD @gfore @srixongolf @anaheimducks @areuchasin
As he practices, Knapp is extremely grateful for having graduated from the Mackenzie Tour last year, making $120,000 Canadian in the process.
“Without the summer I had last year, I would be living at home with my parents and probably considering getting another job,” Knapp said. “I would be a lot more worried about money. It’s a huge bummer for those guys (on the Mackenzie Tour). The playing season is usually May to late September up there and that’s all they get.”
For that reason, the Mackenzie Tour and those playing on it find themselves in a tough situation. Four Q-School events and seven regular tour events have been postponed. There were only 14 regular tour events scheduled total, the last one coming Sept. 17-20 near the end of the golf season in Canada.
Bryson Nimmer, a standout at Clemson who was the ACC Player of the Year in 2019, finished No. 37 on the Mackenzie Tour Order of Merit last season and then failed to get through Korn Ferry Tour Q-School. That puts him in the unenviable position of waiting for the tour’s tentative schedule to become clarified.
“We’re so used to playing competitive golf, so when that gets taken away, it’s like ‘Oh man, what do I do?’ ” Nimmer said. “I’m pretty optimistic that we are going to play again this year, but ‘What is that going to like and when?’ is the question … it kind of sucks if you don’t have PGA Tour or Korn Ferry Tour status and the opportunities to get it are not there, because that is what we are all working for. It changes your outlook on the year. At the same time, I totally understand why they did that.”
Nimmer echoed others regarding the financial difficulty of playing on the Korn Ferry or Mackenzie Tour, but he also explained that travel for the Mackenzie Tour has improved greatly over the past several years.
“From talking to other guys who used to play years ago, they would have to fly to the west coast of Canada, then back to the east coast and then back to the west coast,” Nimmer said. “They’ve done a great job of grouping most of the events together, so it’s usually a pretty easy flight or drive. It doesn’t always change expenses that much, but it’s a huge help.”
Kyle Mueller, a 24-year-old out of the University of Michigan, who narrowly missed getting a Korn Ferry Tour card via the Mackenzie Tour last year, remained hopeful for a season to take place in 2020. However, he also believes that forced retirements will become inevitable as certain players who were on the fence about continuing with professional golf may not have the money or desire to push forward.
“When you’re at this level, you say you aren’t playing for the money but you are,” Mueller said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a lot of older guys who just run out of money and stop playing. There are a lot of guys who won’t be able to reach that next level and it will hurt them financially. Out here, one good week can keep you going for a year.”
For now, everyone on every tour is playing a waiting game. India bought a Nintendo Switch and has been doing whisky video reviews. Nimmer has started lifting paint cans because he can’t go to the gym. Knapp sneaks onto the golf course he lives on and plays a few holes. Mueller has been honing a swing change that could be the catalyst to better play. All have been systematically burning through Netflix.
And all of them wait for their opportunity to get back on the road, chasing a paycheck to keep going.
Jake Knapp and his caddie read the green during The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic in January. Photo: Ben Jared, PGA Tour via Getty Images
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