Talk about a fantasy career. How does becoming a professional golfer sound? Get real. You’re not good enough. That is unless you were, or are, one of the top amateurs in the world. For a select few golfers with special skills and an ample dose of good fortune, turning 50 can be the doorway to living the life of a pro athlete—and the dream of many a weekend duffer.
When Graham Banister was 17, he was one of the finest young golfers in Australia. In a major junior tournament, he finished second to another teen phenom named Greg Norman. But Banister knew that for an aspiring golfer, even of his talent, fame and fortune were far from a sure thing. He chose to pursue a college degree rather than a pro career. He entered a career in business and became a software entrepreneur. He married and started a family. He moved to the United States. Like so many others he played less and less golf as the demands of family and business absorbed his time.
Then several years ago, after playing golf only a few times a year for some 20 years, with his business doing well and his children growing older, Banister began to play more.
“I had begun playing with a group of weekend golfers at a local public course and had steadily improved to the point where I was averaging under par each week,” Banister recalls. Urged on by his friends, he entered a big North Carolina amateur tournament. “I very much surprised myself by finishing second and realized that I still enjoyed playing tournament golf and still had a little bit of game as well.”
Any man with enough game can try to earn a spot on the PGA Champions Tour (formerly the Senior Tour), which is open to golfers 50 years and older. Most of the spots go to PGA Tour players who have turned 50. But in November, there is a national qualifying tournament—“Q School”—for the upcoming year’s tour. Most of the participants are journeyman touring pros or club pros. But top amateurs who score well in regional qualifiers can participate, too. The top few dozen scorers in the Q School event earn the right to play in a single-round qualifying round each week at the start of Champions tournaments. The low eight or nine players in these weekly qualifiers get to play in that week’s main event. Playing well enough to win some money in the main events ultimately can lead to sponsor exemptions, a regular Champions Tour card and a bona fide pro career.
Every once in a while it happens. Jay Sigel, a Philadelphia-area insurance agent and accomplished amateur player over two decades who won the U.S. Amateur twice, joined the Champions Tour when he turned 50 in 1993 and never looked back. Since then he has won eight Tour events and more than $9 million. Or Mark Johnson, who drove a delivery truck for a California beer distributor for 18 years before joining the Nationwide Tour at age 45 (the PGA’s version of the minor leagues) and then the Champions Tour at 50. He won a tournament in his first season on the senior circuit, in 2005. Johnson has banked more than $1.6 million in winnings.
For Banister and two of his friends, playing on the Champions Tour was an idea that started to develop as they practiced together and discovered success in amateur tournament golf in their late 40s. His playing buddies were Mike Goodes and Kevin King, two amateurs who had been playing competitive golf with and against one another since high school. Like Banister, they lived in North Carolina, owned their own businesses and were due to turn 50 in time for the 2007 Tour. And both were eyeing the opportunity to turn pro.
“I was quite ambivalent about the whole thing,” Banister says. “It was more their interest than mine. Mike had been thinking about it for some time and had been playing some great golf at the amateur level so had every reason to be excited. I had been playing OK but I really didn’t know if my game was good enough to be out there with all those great players.”
Encouraged by Goodes and King, Banister joined them in applying for a spot at Champions Q School. In November 2006, they were among nearly 400 players playing for 33 spots. Improbably, when the last golf ball rolled into the cup on the final hole, the three were the only non-pros to make the final 33. (Goodes had briefly been a pro back in the mid-1980s.)
Two months later, Banister and Goodes teed off in their first event, trying to play their way into the weekend rounds at the Turtle Bay Championship in Hawaii. (King had to wait until his 50th birthday came later in the year.) Neither made it, but both reveled in the experience of traveling to play golf as a professional. In their first months on the tour, each played in about a half dozen qualifiers, and each came close but didn’t advance to the weekend. Banister lost twice in playoffs during the qualifying rounds. Eventually both broke through; in one tourney Banister found himself playing on Sunday in a threesome with Fuzzy Zoeller, a fan favorite who attracts a huge gallery wherever he plays.
In addition to having the skills to compete against the best golfers in the world, Banister and his friends were fortunate to be successful business owners. Unlike athletes on professional teams, there are no salaries in golf. Winning, or coming close, is the only way to make a living as a pro golfer. It’s an entrepreneurial career of a different sort. And expenses are high. One week’s expenses, including round-trip flights to places like California and Hawaii, can run several thousand dollars. Plus, there are lessons, caddy fees and equipment to pay for. With steady incomes from their businesses, these three friends could relish the excitement of pro golf without having to putt under the pressure of needing a birdie to pay the bills.
Being self-employed also makes it easier to take time off for all of the practice and travel that are required to compete. Banister was disciplined about his adventure, ramping up his practice schedule before Q School and mapping out a travel schedule for 2007 that allowed him to be at many of the Tour events but also leaving himself time to continue managing his software company. In a few cases, he scheduled business trips to dovetail with the dates and locations of tournaments.
By the second half of the year, Goodes had found his groove and was making it past Monday more often. He finished 2007 with $53,000 in prize money. In 2008 he had to continue to play his way into tournaments on Mondays and did so more and more often. Toward the end of 2008, he finished second in a big tournament. That earned him a Champions tour card (and a big check), meaning he could play in most events during 2009 without having to qualify week to week. Goodes’ big breakthrough came in February 2009, when he won the Allianz Championship in Boca Raton, Fla., besting two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer, bringing his pro earnings to more than $1 million and solidifying his standing on the tour.
“Some days I feel like Cinderella,” Goodes, now 53 and ranked 24th on the 2009 Champions Tour money list, told a North Carolina newspaper.