This is a story about the pro tour. Also known as The Professional Golfers' Association of America Tournament Circuit or Pro Golf's Circuitous Caravan or The Long Gray Grind for Gold or, quite simply, the tour. It is, in addition, a story about me, the narrator. Also known as Anthony David Lema or Champagne Tony or, quite simply, Tony. It is an inside story, an intimate story that I hope will give you a better idea of a touring pro's life and what you are seeing the next time you watch us at a tournament or on TV.
There are perhaps a hundred touring pros like me—or near enough like me to make my story their story. We float along on a tournament schedule that starts in January and ends in December. We compete for more than $2.5 million in prize money and hundreds of thousands of dollars in peripheral income. This is a great deal of money, and some professional golfers get very rich. Unfortunately, it is not nearly enough to go around. Some professional golfers get very broke. We are migrant sportsmen, moving from country club to country club, and many of the millions of people who watch us think, "What a ball. Playing a game for all that money, traveling all over the U.S. and all over the world!"
Well, the tour is a ball, some of the time, and the money is there, if you are good enough to win it. As for the traveling? I remember what my friend Don Whitt, who has been on the tour since 1955, once remarked while lying on his back in a San Juan hotel room, too tired to go to the beach. "I've traveled 100,000 miles a year on the tour," he said, "but the only thing of note I've seen is the Washington Monument."
That is a complaint, but it is also a statement of fact. We are not out here on the tour to sightsee. We are out here to make our living. Get that "out here." Ours is such a unique, nomadic existence that we tend to start every explanation concerning it with, "Well, out here on the tour...."
What is a touring pro? He is a golf professional who is either a member of the PGA or holds an Approved Player's card from the PGA. To obtain such a card a golfer must produce character references, testimony that his golf game is a good one and proof that he can support himself on the tour for at least a few months even if he never picks up a prize-money check the whole time.
But a rookie finds this isn't all. He arrives at a tour event and discovers that he has to play in a tournament just to get into the tournament. This is called pre-tournament qualifying. Most of the PGA tournaments have a starting field of 120 to 150 players. This sounds like a lot, but there are always more players than places to be filled. To keep the field at this size the PGA has worked out a selection and qualifying system that does not leave a lot of spots open. At the Los Angeles Open, held in early January and traditionally a big field, there are usually some 350 players competing in the pre-event qualifying round for about 30 or 35 places. At the Crosby about 130 players compete in the pre-tournament qualifying for about 20 spots. It goes something like this much of the year. I know of many players out on the tour who hardly ever play in a tournament. Every week they try to qualify and every week they fail. Then they move on to the next town and try to qualify there. They are on the tour just as much as the rest of us, but the regular players run into them only now and then. We call them the Ghost Squadron.
Nor does escaping the Ghost Squadron necessarily mean much. You can qualify for almost every tournament and still not make a dime. When you start to think about the players who are out here who don't have a real chance—and there are more of them than there should be—the tour can seem like a sad and tragic caravan, not a golden one.
When I look back I wonder how I had the nerve to start. Most of the players on the tour today at least got in on the ground floor. They had played on college golf teams or gotten lots of competitive experience as amateurs. Not old Tony. I climbed into pro golf through a basement window.
A tiny little desert town of about 6,000 people in the northeast corner of Nevada hardly seems like the place to begin a career as a touring pro, but that is where mine really started. The name of the town was Elko and it was strictly the poor man's Las Vegas. It contained three casinos and a couple of nightclubs and served as a resort for people from Idaho and Utah. I had taken a job as head professional at the nine-hole municipal golf course early in 1957. It was hardly a magnificent spot, but it wasn't bad for someone who had decided to go into professional golf only about a year and a half earlier.
My 18 months as a golf pro had been pretty full ones. After getting out of the Marines in October 1955 I had gone to work as a shop assistant at the San Francisco Golf Club. I was then 21. While employed at the club I had somehow managed to qualify for the U.S. Open, played in Rochester, N.Y. In Rochester I had goggled at the big names of golf—like Cary Middlecoff, Ben Hogan, Julius Boros, Mike Souchak, etc. Nobody could have been more lost. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a 36-hole cutoff. I overheard somebody mention it in the hotel lobby. I made the cut by a stroke, but if I hadn't I would have happily showed up at the course the next day ready to play in a tournament I was already out of. It was all out of my class. Then, early in 1957, I actually won a tournament. A little one, played in El Centro, Calif., but still a tournament. During the last round I had holed one fantastic putt after another for a 65, but even with that I didn't figure on catching the leader, Paul Harney. I had to be dragged out of the bar, where I had already downed three highballs, to play Harney in a sudden-death playoff. I beat him with a pair of birdies so fluky that Harney must have thought I was the original Black Magic Kid.