LALI STANDER: Life on the pro side isn’t always greener
You have to be one of the top 10 in any tournament to make decent money
It’s that time of the year when the world’s top players earn bucket loads of cash, sometimes just for turning up, but let’s remember that most golf professionals are not raking in vast amounts of money.
Here on home soil, there are plenty of top golfers who struggle to make ends meet.
Some are rookies, still finding their feet in the professional game while undergoing their rite of passage. Others are seasoned veterans looking to rediscover the spark that saw them winning events a few years back. And, in between, there are a heck of a lot of golfers who are hoping this will finally be the season when the doors to the lucrative honeypots of the European or PGA Tours are opened.
This is by no means a criticism of the Sunshine Tour, which does an incredible job of producing world-class professional golfers and preparing them for the bigger tours. It is rather an acknowledgment of the competitiveness of the local tour.
It can be incredibly difficult to land a string of top-10s in these events, never mind win a tournament, and the winter months really lay it bare for players.
With purses around R1m per tournament, golfers realistically need a top 10 to show a profit for the week, after covering their transport, accommodation and tournament-related costs.
That’s some kind of pressure before a golfer has even teed off. Miss the cut and you’re leaking some serious cash.
The younger, unmarried golfers can cut their costs by sharing lifts and accommodation, staying with family, or getting friends to carry their bags, but spare a thought for those golfers with families to support and bonds to pay.
So far in 2021, the player ranked 50th on the Sunshine Tour money list has earned a grand total of R129,971 from 11 tournaments. That’s not a heck of a lot of money per event — and almost certainly a loss in the balance sheet.
So why play?
The school of thought is that players need to earn their way to the bigger tours and grind away until they are good enough. Hence, many players view the Sunshine Tour as a stepping stone to the bigger tours and some are just one win away from a change in fortunes.
As is almost always the case in golf, play better and the results and opportunities will take care of themselves. More importantly, players can really cash in when the big-money, co-sanctioned events roll into town.
Just making the cut at, for example, the SA Open in 2020, saw players bank in the region of R40,000, while a top-20 finish would be worth about R200,000. Decent money, both for the bank balance and the Order of Merit race.
Realistically, most will keep grinding until they level up; others choose to change course.
Former Sunshine Tour player Andrew Georgiou, who recently regained his amateur status, captained the Western Province team to victory in the 2021 SA Inter-Provincial Tournament in September.
For the 35-year-old journeyman, early retirement wasn’t so much because he couldn’t compete, but rather a growing appetite for business interests outside of pro golf.
“I had the best nine years of my life playing pro golf,” he says. “I played on the Canadian Tour for two seasons and played 45 European Tour events.
“I think that maybe I got a little comfortable playing here in SA when my dream had always been to play on the PGA Tour. I reached the age of 30 and it was a tipping point for me. I had always dreamed of playing in America and winning Majors and I wasn’t doing that.”
Georgiou founded a company called GolfPlayed that offers an app with which one can keep track of all the different courses you have played across the world.
“I miss the competition, but I don’t miss the grind of playing your heart out for three days to cash a cheque for R12,000. And coming back to amateur golf has been more fun than I ever expected.”
Josh Cunliffe is another former Sunshine Tour player who returned to the amateur ranks.
A 10-year pro career took him around the world, including the Open Championships of 2008 and 2010. He was regularly ranked within the top 30 on the Sunshine Tour and though Cunliffe was making a comfortable living for himself on the local tour, he opted to study a degree in biochemistry through Unisa and then launched a telecommunications company.
“I was making reasonable money and I enjoyed travelling the world, but in the back of my mind I knew I needed to have a backup plan,” he says.
Gradually, however, the backup plan started dominating more and more of his time — meaning fewer hours on the practice range. Ultimately, Cunliffe made the decision to call an end to his pro career, but he has no regrets.
“I’m grateful that I still have a good relationship with golf,” he says. “I’ve had some friends who have retired from pro golf and quit the game completely. I still get to tee it up on Saturdays and, thankfully, I still love playing the game.”
Quitting pro golf is a tough decision, but more than often there is an upside to stopping and smelling the roses.
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