From Amateur to Professional: How to Become a Pro GolferPublished on 05/28/2023 · 16 min readEver dreamt of making it big time? In this article, Golf Expert Jackson Hokuf breaks down the process of becoming a professional golfer.
Justin Thomas. Photo courtesy of the Chattanooga Times Free Press
Let’s be honest, we have all that one hole where we pipe it down the fairway, pure a wedge to the green, and hit the birdie putt like we are Tiger Woods or Dustin Johnson. Then that thought pops into your head, I could do this on tour and rub elbows as one of the best in the world! Professional golfing is probably one of the most lucrative careers in sports when you factor in tournament purses and endorsements! But where does one even start? I am here to describe the path to becoming a professional golfer.
For most, the journey to becoming a professional golfer starts the same way as most pro athletes do—at an early age. On tour, a large portion of the competitors have been golfing either competitively or recreationally since they were about 7 or 8 years old. Justin Thomas has been golfing since he was 2! Starting this young obviously creates a huge advantage because so much of golf is built off of muscle memory and good habits. Starting young also allows a junior golfer to experience a variety of golf courses, swing pathways, and other aspects of starting to pick up the game of golf that will help with their knowledge and mental game down the road.
Along with the time to create good swing habits, starting young also allows for the opportunity to play in junior tournaments. This is beneficial for many reasons. One is that they are given the chance to create a name and reputation for themselves without the pressures of money or a tour card being on the line. These golf tournaments also prepare them for the competitive road ahead through high school and into college. PGA Professionals can also help develop good swing habits with junior golfers. Often a head golf professional or assistant professional can offer lessons in either a group setting or 1 on 1. PGA membership requires not only passing a competency exam, which many prepare for by attending a PGA golf management university program, but also requires a qualifying test, called the player ability test, to ensure the professional's own game is up to standard as well.
This is the level where golfers really start to gain traction and find out where they stand competitively! High school golf allows the athletes to see where they stack up not only locally but also state-wide. For golfers like Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler, this level showed them they were really, really good golfers! Both dominated in their state, winning numerous championships and other individual awards. Par becomes less of an event and more of a standard out on the course, short-game conversions improve, and scores will start moving away from the average numbers that amateur golfers shoot and towards those of a scratch golfer or someone who scores, on average, par on every hole, as well as get more comfortable playing the back tee box, or tips, on courses to increase difficulty. While most high schools don't play from these distances, many college tournaments, including some major amateur events like the USGA Amateur Championship and USGA Amateur Public Links Championship, all will play from tees that are well over 6,500 on most courses they host these tournaments at. It can be a good idea to move back tees during practice rounds or exhibition play to help improve phases of the game that aren't as commonly relied on during a round at a shorter course.
- CIF Individual Champion (‘91, ‘93, ‘94)
- Orange County League MVP (‘91, ‘92, ‘93, ‘94)
- Dial Award for Top Male Athlete in the U.S. in ‘93
- Competed in Los Angeles Open at 16 years old in ‘92
- Most Decorated High School Golfer in CA History
- SCGA Regional Qualifier with -10 to win as a Freshman
- Individual Champion with -8 to win CIF as Sophomore
- Led Team to first-ever back-to-back championships
As we have covered earlier, golf has a lot to do with reputation and winning. College is where athletes really start to separate themselves from the pack! College golf is also where a lot of golfers start to build their brand and compete for spots at the next level. Just like every sport, the best of the best usually end up playing at the Division 1 level, with powers like Stanford, UC Berkeley, University of Texas, and Florida State leading the pack. Getting the opportunity to play at one of these schools means access to great coaching, great facilities, and great competition from both the team and the opponents.
Notable Alumni at each school
- Stanford: Tiger Woods, Zach Johnson, and Maverick McNealy
- UC Berkeley: Colin Morikawa and Max Homa
- University of Texas: Jordan Spieth and Tom Kite
- Florida State: Brooks Koepka and Daniel Berger
As you can see just from that short list of schools and their alumni, NCAA Golf is a breeding ground for the top talent in the world! Another great part about college golf is that we get to see a lot of the next generation play as amateurs in major tournaments all season on the PGA Tour. This opportunity has shone a spotlight on now big-time names like Matthew Wolff, who played as an amateur while attending Oklahoma State. Talk about a great learning experience—that is like being a college baseball player and getting to play for a week with an MLB team! College is also an excellent time to start building a brand for yourself and gaining traction as a moneymaker for the top companies in golf.
If you are past college and think this is the career for you…welcome to the club! This road is not for the faint of heart. It can be grueling and misleading and might end up with you in debt. That is just the brutal truth. Not to worry, though; this is where the real information is coming if you've outgrown the ranks of juniors and college golf but could see yourself accepting a sponsor exemption one week and Monday qualifying the next.
To get rolling, join your local USGA-sanctioned Golfer’s Association and register your handicap. To do that, go here. Become a member, get a registered handicap, and find local amateur tournaments! These usually cost anywhere from $85-200 and are a great way to build your reputation and your confidence. One important thing to remember is you need to maintain an amateur status to compete in any AM events (we will cover this soon). Serious dedication and a full-time focus will likely be required; many people attempt to become holders of a PGA Tour card and come up well short in the "minor leagues" of golf. Even after playing some professional golf in the United States, Canada, or elsewhere around the world, access remains a big struggle for the best golfers.
Once you think you are ready, you can do a number of things, including PGA’s Q School, the Korn Ferry Tournament, or get on with a local tournament circuit! It should be noted that most of these options are centralized around the United States, and much of this process would require relocation and heavy travel.
Q School This is a developmental league otherwise known as Qualifying School. The structure is designed to create a separation between the strong and the weak. It is a grueling schedule that starts with a pre-qualifying round and on to the first qualifier. After that, it is broken down into a first, second, and final stage. The three stages outside of the final are regional events which means you aren’t traveling across the country to hopefully move on. Events in the first two stages average about 85 players who are all playing for about 20-25 spots. If you make it to the final, congratulations because that is a feat in itself and almost guarantees a spot on the Korn Ferry Tour for at least a couple of starts.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, not exactly. This is where everyone who didn’t automatically get on to the Korn Ferry or another PGA tour goes to get their start. You have to be hungry and determined to make this happen, otherwise, you will get left behind by the competition. Q School also isn’t cheap. Depending on the stage you qualify to start at, it can be quite expensive.
- Pre-Qual: $5,500.00
- 1st stage: $5,000.00
- 2nd stage: $4,500.00
When you pay this fee, it only guarantees that you are covered for participating in Q School events all the way through the final event. This does not include travel, lodging, or caddies. Some players may pay up to $10k and hope they see a return on this investment.
Korn Ferry Tour The Korn Ferry Tour, formerly known as the Web.com Tour, is the peak of competition outside of actual PGA Tours. This is where you will find the next generation of golfers vying for a spot in the big show. This is also the first step in becoming a professional because there are purses for the tournament. This means that now a golfer is playing just as much for a spot at the next level as they are for their livelihood! Purses are $600k, split amongst the winner and others who make the cut. From the KFT, a player can automatically earn a promotion to the PGA Tour with three tournament wins. This sounds relatively easy, right? Well, not exactly. The three wins on Tour don’t happen every year, and there’s a reason you earn such a big reward for completing the task.
Professional vs Amateur Status
What does being an amateur mean?
As an amateur, a golfer cannot accept payment for winning. However, amateurs can participate in many more events than a pro because of their status. This means that an amateur can participate in local, regional, and even PGA events but cannot win money or take money from others for winning. Essentially, if you have amateur status, the only money you can make from golf is from your employment of some sort as a coach or whatever role you may have at a club, course, or training facility.
The professional difference
Professional status signifies that a golfer can accept money for their talents. That means they can win cash prizes at tournaments, sign endorsement deals, and basically make their living through being a golfer. Let me be clear: this does not include being a Golf Pro (coach, instructor, or fitter), as amateurs can also have this profession. This status also means the golfer is restricted to what tournaments they can compete in.
Professional golfer vs. golf professional
- Only job is to improve their own game once they’ve turned professional; this can include a fitness routine, swings at the practice facility, and on-course training on an average day.
- Travels the country and possibly the globe, playing highly competitive golf for a source of income.
- Plays the game in the highest 1-2% of performance and scoring.
- Can occasionally work other jobs while trying to compete, including giving lessons.
- Typically self-employed as an independent contractor on tours.
- Likely attended a Professional Golf Management (PGM) program and is licensed by the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) of America.
- Passes a Player Ability Test (PAT) but isn’t shooting the scores or playing the game nearly at the level of someone attempting to be a tour professional most of the time.
- Helps to run a golf club or country club on a day-to-day and strategic basis.
- Has an in-depth understanding of the business behind the game of golf.
- Typically employed by a course or golf facility.
Amateurs and sponsors
An amateur may receive sponsorships of any kind. Does that mean Callaway or TaylorMade can pay you to wear their hat and swing their club on your road to the tour? NO. Instead, they can offer you equipment for free as a way of limiting expenses, because, as we talked about already, the financial burden of trying to make it can become heavy! Sponsors can be anything from a club manufacturer to a family friend who thinks you have what it takes. The stipulation is that there is never money actually changing hands based on performance or finishes.
For example, if you sign a deal with Callaway that states that you’re an amateur and they will supply free fittings, free clubs, and free apparel, and you win the Denver City Amateur, the company CANNOT pay you any money for that win. These deals can also come in the form of an IOU, so be careful how you make them and who they are with.
How do I get sponsored as an amateur?
Build a reputation. Build a brand. Win. Three simple steps to get you noticed and get you help covering expenses to try and make it big time.
Building a reputation and winning are typically synonymous because the more you win, the more your name gets talked about. However, being a good person, having a good attitude, and basically not blowing people off will always help, because who wants to help the bad guy? You can do this by entering every local and regional amateur tournament possible and finishing Top 15 or better.
Building a brand used to sound like a daunting task but, with social media being what it is now, almost anyone can do it with a smartphone and some witty captions. Use these tools, document your journey, and post engaging content, and you will start to get noticed. If you can do these three things, or at least the reputation and brand building, you can earn some sponsorships!
Professionals and sponsors
I am sure you have seen it. The golfers on tour who look like walking billboards for companies? Their hat has three different companies, their shirt has logos embroidered on its collar, and their fancy bag has another name embroidered. Looks great, doesn’t it? Do you know what makes it better? They are making a pretty, pretty penny for doing so. In 2019, Phil Mickelson had a very poor season as far as winning is concerned, only pocketing $2 million from actual golf play. I know, $2 million dollars does not sound bad, but guess what? He made $40 million off the sponsorship deals he has in place. Companies jump at the chance to have their logo on his shirt, hat, or bag because 1) he is great on camera and social media and 2) because he is still a phenomenal golfer. Well, how do you do that? Same way as getting sponsors as an amateur. Be good, have a brand, win, and be a good person.
PGA Tour and Other Tours
Obviously, the end all be all is to make it big and get the tour card and never give it up. If you get there on your first try, then kudos to you, and I hope you stay there. If it’s the case that you do not come out of the Korn Ferry and you do not crack the big show, fear not.
The pinnacle of competitive golf, this is where everyone wants to be. The tour consists of approximately 54 tournaments a season, and usually, players compete in 25-35 of them. Out of the 54, there are 4 Majors, which are the US Open, Masters, British Open, and PGA Championship. Similar to Nascar, the PGA has a points race that leads up to a playoff at the end of the season for the Tour Championship. In order to compete in this, you must be in the 125-man grouping. Unfortunately for the golfers left out of the 125-person field, they lose their tour card and have to try and earn it back.
PGA Latin America
This tour is a branch of the PGA Tour, but while you still are competing against world-class competition, this level is not as lucrative as the main tour. Events are held all over South America, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Florida. You can still make the jump to the big time, but if you aren’t quite at that level yet, this tour is a great place to compete and hone your skills while still winning money!
The European tour is another step down from the PGA Tour, but it is also another great breeding ground to dial in your game. Usually, between the European and Latin America tours is where a lot of alternates for the Tour tournaments spend their time playing.
Tools for Success
Aside from what we have talked about as far as becoming a pro golfer, there are some other steps you should take. I think it is very important to do three things when pursuing this career.
- Get a home course. Find a golf course or local club in your area that has its challenges (ex: greens that are hard to read, unique cuts of rough off the fairway, layout) but is also somewhere you are comfortable. This is a great way to work on course management and get consistent practice on a course that you cannot do on the range. This is also a great way to get out and play golf regularly.
- Get a golf coach. Have a coach that will help you with your golf swing and also the mental side of the game. Every pro golfer still gets golf lessons regularly. They may not be working on their swing as much but rather understanding how to shape a shot or set up the next shot.
- Get good golf clubs. We talked about what a manufacturer can and will provide if they sponsor you. It is important that you get fitted before you get a sponsor, though. You want to swing clubs that you know are built to make you succeed.
That was a lot of information, and it may seem like a lot to digest. Well, that is because becoming a professional athlete in any sport is hard, but the road to doing it in golf is tougher than most. It is a long winding path, and you may never see the end goal you dream of, but if you do, this can be one of the most lucrative and fun careers of any sport! I hope you found where to start and use this guide to pave your path. If you have any questions or want to get the perfect gear to start your career, reach out to a Golf Expert here on Curated for free, personalized advice and recommendations.