Anthony Kim rode the fast track to the PGA Tour. At 16, he moved to La Quinta, California—2 hours from his family's home—to live by himself and focus on golf. He was a four-time American Junior Golf Association All-American, won the Northeast Amateur in 2004 and played on the U.S. Walker Cup team in 2005. He played golf for 3 years at the University of Oklahoma, leaving early to turn pro in 2006. He got a sponsor's exemption in his first event, the Valero Open, and finished second. He earned his 2007 tour card at Qualifying School, cracked the top 100 in the world rankings before he reached 22 and became a multimillionaire.
Needless to say, the road to PGA or LPGA glory isn't nearly that straight for most golfers. Becoming a professional golfer is one of the most daunting challenges in all of sports. For every Anthony Kim who comes along, thousands of terrific golfers struggle to taste any professional success. So how do you do it?
It starts, as it did for Kim, in the amateur ranks. You can get a head start playing in local, state, regional and national junior events. Success in those events can lead to a college scholarship, as can good high school golf credentials.
College golf is a terrific development ground. You don't have to pay to play golf. You don't have to pay for lessons or time at the driving range. You get regular practice time with your team, access to weight training and the opportunity to compete at a high level. Many professional golfers matured at the college level, on their school's dime.
If you didn't play college golf, you can still hone your skills at the amateur level and prepare to turn pro. If you are a "scratch" golfer with a knack for making big shots in tournament play, you might have the tools to make it.
If you have success against top amateurs, then you should explore your professional options. At this point, you will need sponsorship support, because breaking into professional golf is very expensive.
The first professional tier features various mini-tours, with events around the country at which you put up an entry fee and play for the pot.
For men, the next step up is the SwingThought Tour, which will cost you $2,000 for the membership application and a qualifying berth. If you become a tour member, it will still cost you $1,000 to enter each event.
The Canadian, Asian and Nationwide tours also feed into the PGA Tour. The Canadian Tour has a qualifying school, which will set you back $2,250 in Canadian currency.
To qualify for the Web.com Tour, you must reach the third stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, called Q-School. This is not cheap. The journey through pre-qualifying and tournament stages can cost you more than $10,000. The final stage, features six grueling rounds. The top 45 finishers (plus ties) earn their tour card for the year, while the remaining golfers to make it to this gain Web.com Tour status allowing them to play on the tour but without a guarantee they will be able to play in every event.
In order to enter the PGA Tour, golfers must either win 3 Web.com Tour events or finish in the top 50 at the Web.com Tour Championship. Fringe golfers move back and forth between tours for years, based on their ability to earn money. The top 125 golfers on the PGA Tour each year keep their card. Tournament winners gain exemptions of 2 to 5 years, depending on the event.
The route for women is similar: The Symetra Tour serves as the developmental circuit and the LPGA Qualifying School is the gateway to the big money.
There is a shortcut for the very best golfers. Sponsors offer exemptions to tour events: If you can make the most of these and climb the money list, you can bypass Q School. You can also play your way out of qualifiers to reach the U.S. Open. Similarly, club pros can play their way into the PGA Championship.
In the early years of the Champions Tour, older golfers who fell off the PGA Tour—or never played it—got second life when they turned 50. As a generation of pro golfers matured, however, it became more difficult to play your way onto that tour.
Then again, who ever thought a golf course operator named Tom Wargo would make it big? Dreams do come true.