Driving ambition, but distant green in sport's minors

The Baltimore Sun

MITCHELLVILLE -- They are among thousands of golfers chasing a dream to make millions of dollars. They are trying to become the next Zach Johnson, who went from obscurity in the sport's minor leagues a few years ago to instant fame by winning this year's Masters.

Billy Hurley III, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 2004, has taken that first step, playing in seven PGA Tour events on sponsors' exemptions as well as three Nationwide Tour events while completing his postgraduate military commitment.

Billy Wingerd, who finished his college career at Towson in 2005, is still trying to break through on the Hooters Tour - golf's equivalent to Single- or Double-A - while finding himself having to balance his goals with his dwindling bank account.

Welcome to the underbelly of professional golf, far from the glistening greens of places such as Augusta National and the glamorous lifestyle of the PGA Tour. Considering the small percentage of aspiring professional golfers to make it there, most live here.

This week, the Nationwide Tour - golf's Triple-A - found its way to the Country Club at Woodmore for the Melwood Prince George's County Open, a $600,000 event with a $108,000 payoff to the winner. That represents about a 10th of the prize money at most PGA Tour events.

"The money isn't as good, but the players are probably just as good [as the PGA Tour]," said Hurley, 25, who received a sponsor's exemption to play this week. "After last year, I sat back and said, 'It's harder to get to the PGA Tour than it is to play on the PGA Tour.' "

Hurley has made the cut just once in a PGA Tour event, finishing 43rd at Bay Hill last year. When he was invited back this year to play in what is now the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Hurley shared a practice round with PGA Tour journeyman Rocco Mediate.

"On the 11th green, he said, 'I'm going to tell you something about your game: Don't change a thing,'" said Hurley, who would go on to miss the cut. "That made me feel pretty good about what I was doing."

Hurley acknowledges that his Navy background helped get him into most, if not all, of the pro events he has played.

"Sponsors' exemption are either you know somebody or you have a cool story," Hurley said. "I think the Naval Academy made it a cool story."

Reality is about to set in and Hurley's career will be interrupted. He leaves next month for Hawaii, where he will be stationed for two years on a destroyer at Pearl Harbor. Hurley said his application as an elite athlete to serve his remaining duty in the reserves was denied.

"With the war, it's very hard to let one guy go play golf, with as many people getting killed and injured all the time," Hurley said earlier this week.

Wingerd, who grew up playing Mount Pleasant and other public courses around Baltimore before going to Towson, had to take a break from the Hooters Tour earlier this year for another reason: a lack of money.

After being sponsored last year and earning back little of around $32,000 in expenses, Wingerd lost his sponsor and spent the early part of this year working as a substitute custodian for the Baltimore County Public Schools. He also had a couple of bull roasts to raise money.

"After he worked as a custodian, he said, 'Dad, I really have to make this golf thing work. This is a lot more difficult than I thought it was,' " said Bill Wingerd, a facilities administrator for the county school system.

Wingerd failed to qualify for the Melwood tournament and has missed the cut at a couple of Hooters Tour events this year. He has already put nearly 20,000 miles on a new car he bought last summer and spent an additional $8,000 this year on golf.

"The game plan when I first started was to get three years of funded golf," Wingerd said. "I told my mom and dad that I would go until that money runs out."

From a competitive standpoint, even making it in the minors is not easy. What Johnson did in working his way up from Midwest mini-tours to the PGA Tour is not impossible, but there are far more capable players than spots available on each level.

"There are a greater number of players now that are attempting to play because of the money that's offered on the PGA Tour," said Grant Waite, a 42-year-old New Zealander whose promise never materialized after winning the 1993 Kemper Open and is now trying to make a living on both the PGA and Nationwide tours. "Like the evolution of any sport, the competition is getting better and better."

Johnson's win in the Masters and more recently the AT&T; Classic outside Atlanta has inspired many in professional golf's underbelly, including Hurley.

"He wasn't a great player coming out of college," said Hurley, who was an All-American at Navy. "He just kept grinding and just kept working at it and now he's one of the best players in the world. It makes you think there's a chance for anybody if you keep working and not giving up."


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