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Last Sunday before a gallery of 28,000 spectators a relatively obscure pro named Jim Colbert won the Greater Jacksonville Open and pocketed a check for $26,000. Colbert was pro golf's showcase winner of the week. Hardly anyone noticed, but the three even less familiar figures at left—Bob Ford, Gary McCord and Jim Barker—were also handed first-place checks last week. They were winners in a suddenly widespread, highly lucrative underground world of tournament golf, a phenomenon not yet a year old, but which in 1973 will outstrip the highly visible showcase circuit of Nicklaus, Trevino, Palmer et al. in total prize money.
Ford, McCord, Barker and a collection of more than 1,000 other might-bes and never-quites, players who have not yet qualified for the PGA's major league of golf or players who have tried it and not prospered, are competing for purses that this year may reach the staggering total of $10 million, compared to the $8.5 million of which the big tour is so proud. The secret to it all? The players themselves put up the prize money.
This new pro golf phenomenon does not even have a name yet. It is being called the mini-tour, but it is certainly not mini nor is it a tour, since each of its many divisions, so to speak, remains in a central location. Perhaps perma-tour would be a more appropriate title, or immovable feast.
Call them what you will, perma-tours have spread like crabgrass. In less than 12 months they have begun to sink flourishing roots into such seemingly arid pro-sport venues as Tampa and Crystal River, Fla., Valdosta and Decatur, Ga., San Antonio and Austin, Texas, Anaheim, Calif. and Grossinger, N.Y. The events are drawing covetous glances from ambitious amateurs eager for pro experience, land developers seeking profits and publicity, and some skilled performers from the big tour who have fallen on lean times. Its most enthusiastic supporters even harbor the far-out notion that someday the perma-tour will rival the big tour and change the entire lifestyle of professional tournament golf.
The perma-tour formula is simple: you bet on yourself. Basically it is nothing more than a sweepstakes. Initially a promoter will recruit golfers, usually from 150 to 175, who are willing to pay a sizable entry fee, one that ranges from $1,250 to $7,000. The promoter then provides a series of weekly tournaments—anywhere from four to 20 or so—for prize money that can total as high as $100,000 for a 36-hole event, with as much as $12,000 going to the winner. The usual restriction is that the entrants must not have won sizable amounts of money on the PGA tour.
The first perma-tour was launched last May in Tampa by a local golf pro, Glenn Peeples. Peeples is a 41-year-old Tampa native who has prospered in golf, real estate and other investments. He not only has good business sense, he has a lively imagination. Two years ago he thought he saw a way to fill a vacuum that existed within the world of competitive pro golf.
"There were 468 golfers attempting to qualify regionally for the PGA tour's playing school last year," says Peeples, "but only 25 ultimately earned their cards. That leaves an awful lot of frustrated guys looking around for a place to play until they can try to qualify again a year later."
Peeples' solution was a series of 20 weekly, two-day tournaments for $20,000 each to be played on two Tampa courses. And his innovation was the surprisingly accurate presumption that the contestants themselves could be asked to fully underwrite the project, prize money and all. The tournaments, therefore, would not need to rely on such PGA tour necessities as commercial sponsors, television contracts or even spectators.
To get things started, Peeples sought help from two business friends, both executives with a Florida development company called Sunstate Builders. Sunstate is supervised by the Ervin Company, a North Carolina-based developer, which, like Sunstate, is a subsidiary of American Cyanamid. Peeples' friends were Sunstate's board chairman, DeWitt Thompson, an enthusiastic golfer who seldom breaks 100, and Sunstate's president, Matt Jetton, who seldom even plays. Both expressed considerable doubt that enough young players could afford Peeples' projected entry fee of $7,000, but Peeples' sights were set on bigger game as the source of revenue: wealthy backers for the pros. He conjured up the clean-cut image of Tampa's Eddie Pearce, then one of the best amateurs in the country and a likable, attractive youngster of 20.
"Both of you would be happy to put up a little money to sponsor Eddie in something like this," Peeples said, "and the same will be true for local favorites all over the country." Convinced, the two Sunstate men anted up $10,000 each and became partners with Peeples in what they called National Tournament Golf Association, Inc.