Date: November 20, 2014
Author: Mike Clayton /

When to turn pro

Someone once said to the great American pro Sam Snead, ‘it must be tough on the tour, Sam’

‘Sure is’ said the Slammer, ‘if you can’t play.’

The world is littered with young men and women chasing the dream of making a living playing golf.

Some were always going to have a golden time of it. I played with 19 year old Adam Scott at Cranbourne in the 2001 Victorian Open and after a horrible six at the opening par five he make five of the easiest birdies in a row you’ve ever seen. By the time we reached the 7th tee it was blindingly obvious the kid was going to be a star. Likewise Geoff Ogilvy who lead the 1995 Victorian Open after three days as a 17 year-old.

Michael Ogilvy, an understandably concerned parent, once asked me if I thought Geoff could make a living on the tour.

‘Mike, you have nothing to worry about. He will be just fine.’ Thirty-five million dollars in prize money later hardly made a prophet of me. Like Adam, it didn’t take a genius to see Ogilvy’s skill for playing the game.

Others have fewer obvious physical skills yet they too have made a handsome living.

For Nick O’Hern it started at Metropolitan in the 1997 Australian Open. His wife was caddying to save money and his ungainly left-handed swing hardly singled him out as one who would go on to play so successfully on the European and American Tours. Unseen was his talent for hard, sensible work and his ability to minimize the number of shots he took every time he went out onto the course.

Scott and Ogilvy were teenagers who graduated in amateur golf by earning the equivalent of 99.9 in the VCE exam. O’Hern was one of only a few who made it to the top levels of the game by getting 85 in his amateur golf ‘exams’.

Of course for every Nick O’Hern there are the hundreds who barely make a dollar of profit from the professional tour.

Jackie Burke, the 1955 Masters Champion said some years ago, ‘The pro tours are the most visible part of golf. We’ve got the Ben Hogan (now Nationwide) Tour now, the European tour, tours all over the world and every year the colleges turn out 1,500 kids who want to play those tours. And, all the tours in the world can’t absorb that many players. Out of that comes an enormous amount of personal catastrophes. We can’t be encouraging all these young people to live their lives week to week in motels. That’s what happens and I can guarantee you it’s not that much fun.’

In Australia there are been any number of good young players who have ascended to the top of the amateur game, turned pro and then disappeared within a couple of years. Many never play the game again, walking away cynical, downhearted and broke.

The demise of the local Australian tour has made progress more difficult. Growing up in the era of Peter Thomson and then Greg Norman meant we all had a viable tour to play at home and a chance to earn enough money to fund our overseas careers. Sure, we didn’t play for a lot of money but we had fifteen or twenty weeks each summer to establish ourselves. Now, there are four decent sized Australian events, one each in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and the Gold Coast. The week prior to this year’s Masters the NSW Open field played for the similar level of prize money we played for in 1982. It may be good practice but in a field of 144 at least 124 are losing money. There is neither sense nor long-term future in it.

Nothing will change too much however. The riches available to the successful are beyond imagination and the modern equipment has given many players skills the preserve of the very best players of generations past. Todd Sinnott drives the ball thirty yards past where Greg Norman did in the 1980s and sixty yards past David Graham. What the equipment has also done is pool a lot more players into the same place, making to so much harder to break out of the pack.

Hitting high, long powerful long irons was a talent reserved for the very best including Norman, Jack Nicklaus, Severiano Ballesteros and Tom Weiskopf.

Now if you can’t hit a long iron it’s not even a problem. Just put a hybrid club in the bag. You can’t play a bunker shot? Get a 64 degree sand wedge and look like Seve in ten minutes. Got the yips?  Anchor a long putter.

Fortunately those charged with administering the game have at least outlawed anchoring the putter but they earn no credit for the dismal job they have done protecting the best of our old courses against the assault of modern ball and driver.

I played with Todd Sinnott at Metropolitan a couple of weeks ago and off the middle tees at the 4th, 6th and 8th holes he hit a wedge into all three par five greens. Does anyone seriously think that is good for the game?

Not even the great Snead could have imagined the balance between equipment and course being so in favour of the player.

Either way we all get to see Ogilvy, Scott and Sinnott and teenage star Ryan Ruffels at Metropolitan this week. Those thinking of trying the tour could do worse than measure their skills against our two major champions and honestly ask themselves if they are any better than half as good.

Ruffels and Sinnott measure up pretty well and these next two weeks at Metropolitan and The Australian are an important part of their education.