If you want the story on the SBC Futures tour, check out the parking lot, not the leader board. No spit-shined courtesy cars here, just econosized rentals, vintage Hondas sagging under the weight of too many miles and minivans sporting bumpers with the telltale striations of metal spikes. Even the tour's headquarters can usually be found in the lot—an RV and a trailer that have been converted into badly upholstered mobile offices.
The Futures tour has always been about mobility—upward, one hopes, but at the very least from one far-flung town to the next. Last week the Futures road show rolled into San Diego to kick off its 19th season, and though the means of transportation looked familiar, the tour itself was heading into uncharted territory. In the last few months the Futures has taken on a new title sponsor, Southwestern Bell Communications, put together its second straight million-dollar season and, at long last, been designated by the LPGA as its official developmental tour. This has brought credibility and name recognition and, more tangibly, coveted LPGA cards to the top three finishers on the Futures' 1999 money list. Marilyn Lovander, the Futures' all-time leading money winner, likens the development of the tour to an upgrade "from a bicycle to a Cadillac.''
Lovander, though, kept the tour in touch with its roots by winning the San Diego Classic, holding off Jen Hanna and Eunice Choi by a stroke in the gloaming last Friday. Her $5,300 check pushed her career earnings past $176,000. She has been playing the Futures tour since the mid-'80s, and her favorite story about the bad old days is of a long-ago trip from Florida to California that began as a 12-car caravan. By the time these gypsies made it to the West Coast, the wagon train was down to two cars. Lovander is the Crash Davis of the Futures tour, but she has mixed feelings about being the queen of the minor leagues. "I'm proud of how consistent I've played out here, but I'm not sure if I want that to be my legacy," she says. "I'd like another crack at the LPGA." Lovander, 44, will try her hand at a few Monday qualifiers on the LPGA tour but concedes that with her victory in San Diego she'll probably now concentrate on the remaining 18 Futures tournaments, hoping to lock up one of the top three spots. "People think this is the easy way to the LPGA tour, and that's far from true," says Lovander. "But right now it's probably the best avenue for me."
Plenty of others share the feeling. To date 285 players have coughed up the required $350 to register with the tour, and every tournament through May has been booked solid since before Feb. 1. (The top 70 from last year's money list have first dibs, and the rest of the 144 slots go to those first to pay the nonrefundable $100 deposit on their $310 entry fee.) The Futures runs well-organized tournaments on quality courses, but there's no denying that its popularity is largely due to one sad fact: There's really nowhere else for these women to play. The Players West tour, concentrated in California and Oregon, runs from August to November but has smaller purses and famously shabby courses. The Central Florida Challenge, held every winter, consists of only six tournaments. The Asian tour is also just a six-tournament slate, barring any local political unrest. (Many Americans skipped last year's tournament in Indonesia, on the advice of the State Department.) Most significant, the European LPGA has been in disarray in recent years, which has left 43 international players representing 15 countries calling the Futures home in '99.
If the on-course cursing last week in San Diego came in some unrecognizable tongues, everything else about the Futures tour felt like a regular pro tournament, only less so. There were no marshals patrolling the 6,095-yard Fallbrook Golf Club, no on-course scoreboards, no gallery ropes and, for the most part, no gallery. There also weren't very many birdies, though the unseasonably cold and wet weather that whipped through the area had something to do with that. Lovander's winning score was just four under, and only three other players broke par over 54 holes. However, nine women fell victim to the so-called first-round cut, a Futures rule whereby anyone who shoots higher than 86 in the opening round is automatically bounced from the tournament. (This included retired tennis star Gigi Fernandez, who, in her first pro tournament—as an amateur under a sponsor's exemption—rang up a 42-45.) "You can't compare our scores to the guys'. That kind of misses the point," says Jennifer Sweeney, a second-year Futures player who knows something about the men's game, having caddied for the last three years on the PGA and Nike tours for her boyfriend, Jonathan Kaye.
An admirable esprit de corps pervades the Futures tour, where every player tries to shoot a number but, failing that, seems grateful just to have had the opportunity. "I don't think most people understand how important it is for us to have a stable tour, run in a professional manner, where we can strive to better ourselves," says Jan Kleiman, who has been playing the Futures tour, off and on, since 1984. "Shoot, I remember when Eloise used to have trouble scraping together 40 players."
Eloise would be the redoubtable Ms. Trainor, the Futures founder and still the tour's president. Trainor worked in pro shops in the Tampa area in her mid-20s and dreamed of the LPGA tour, but she had no place to develop her game. "I came along before college golf," the 50-year-old Trainor says. "Like so many girls, I wasn't competition-ready."
In 1981 she took matters into her own hands, and the Tampa Bay Mini-Tour was born. The first tournament drew 53 curious players competing for a $5,000 purse made up entirely of their entry fees. In 1984 Trainor renamed her baby the Futures tour and guaranteed purses for the first time. The tour rolled on, with nothing but a huge line of credit and Trainor's unwavering faith. In 19 years Trainor has never missed a tournament (a streak that ought to make Cal Ripken blush), and she didn't draw a salary until nine years ago. "I think Eloise is one of the most overlooked heroes in the development of women's golf," says Michelle Bell, last year's leading money winner with $49,526. "She had a vision, and she clung to it despite unbelievable obstacles. I'm pretty sure she has plowed every nickel she's ever made back into the tour."
Trainor is rightfully proud of the caliber of tournaments she produced on a shoestring budget, as well as the quality of players. In 1999 more than 160 Futures alumnae are members of the LPGA, and the list reads like a who's who of women's golf, including Laura Davies, Tammie Green, Rosie Jones, Michelle McGann, Dottie Pepper and Karrie Webb. All told, Futures grads can claim more than 175 LPGA victories, including 19 majors. Nevertheless, the Futures' financial underpinnings have always been shaky, which explains the LPGA's previous wariness of a formal relationship.
The Futures' fortunes began to turn in August 1996, when Zayra Calderon, a tack-sharp native of Costa Rica, bought half ownership of the tour. Calderon may be a senior vice president at Cigna, the monolithic health care company, but she devotes, in her words, "Saturdays, Sundays and all my vacation time to the tour." (This claim is slightly suspect, considering that she is the five-time defending club champ at Weston Hills Golf and Country Club, in Fort Lauderdale, the former home of the PGA Tour's Honda Classic.) Calderon, 48, speaks five languages, plus businessese. Last week she spoke of having outsourced the tour's nongolf operations, thereby streamlining the operation, of plans to brand the Futures name with a soon-to-be-launched marketing campaign, and of leveraging the LPGA name into more local sponsorship deals. Under Calderon's direction (she's the CEO) the tour has, for the first time, been in the black (three years running), and she was the one who hammered out the deal with the LPGA, which also stipulates that numbers four through 10 on the Futures money list earn a free pass to the LPGA's Q school finals.