Just How Good To Make It?

So I had the chance to get to the golf course today. It just so happened that a couple friends were available to play.

Now I have not had much chance to tee it up this season so my game, which used to be fairly reliable, has suffered some. Days once considered “good” would have yielded scores that always checked in at around par or better. Now, if 75 or better is the result – I’m a very happy boy.

So when I set up today’s “match” I knew I could be in for a little bit of a beating. After all my partners were a former collegiate player who once took his shot at the professional tours and another who, well, he’s pretty damn good. I had no chance of beating them but the show, it was fun to watch.

That particularly holds true for player #2. If you are Canadian you may recognize his name, Matt McQuillan. At the age of 27 he is in a tough spot as a touring professional. In his fifth year as a pro he is not yet on the PGA Tour, where your arrival means you have been a professional golf success, but it is certainly not talent that has held him back.

After being the top Canadian Junior Matt went on to play collegiate golf at Oklahoma State. Two seasons at arguably the best golf program in the nation were good to him in some ways but much tougher in others. After his sophomore year he transferred to another powerhouse, the University of Georgia. He played well, toughed out the academics but felt he was ready to hit the road as a pro. After a year at Georgia he returned home to Canada and qualified for the Canadian Tour with a convincing performance in his first effort.

He was ready to hit the big time. An agent (whose company also represented Woody Austin on the PGA Tour and even baseball’s Randy Johnson) came on board promising big things. Lots of locals stepped up with support.

But a couple tournaments into his first year as a pro, life hit back. Long drives in cars between tournaments can be rough on you and Matt found that out the hard way. Having only dipped a toe into life as a pro golfer Matt’s season was over almost before he started. A back injury put him out for the rest of the year.

But all was not lost. In the next three years, even without a lot of financial support (the agent and the golf division of his agency packed up), Matt scraped by. There was a highlight of a win at the 2005 Telus Edmonton Open on the Canadian Tour. With the $24,000 first prize cheque Matt celebrated – he paid off his credit cards and had enough left over to buy a pair of dress shoes. Ahh, the sweet rewards of minor league pro golf.

In those three seasons he finished within the top 25 on the Tour’s Order of Merit each year. As high as 10th one year.

In the winter seasons he often made it to Florida to hone his game on the Golden Bear (now Gateway Tour). It costs about $20,000 after entry and expenses to play the tour and even as a top 20 money winner, he barely broke even.

Money was often an issue. It can very tough to progress in professional golf. If you are going to make a living you have to get to the big tours. And spots available are slim.

Funding one year allowed him to play PGA Tour Qualifying AND European Tour qualifying. At the US School he hurt his back again. In Europe he fired a 66 in the final round to make it past 1st stage. In 2nd stage in Spain he languished at even par after 2 days. Needing a rally he tied the course record with a 64 in round three. He beat it the next day with a 63. -17 for 2 rounds set what was then a European Tour record

Final stage was not as kind but it still left him with access to the European Challenge Tour. Unfortunately last minute phone calls to play in the Kenyan Open, and the expense to get there, was just not in the picture. He settled back on to the Canadian Tour that year.

Somehow, Matt got by. Supportive parents, friends, local sponsors, and the occasional deal with a golf course helped out. After four years though he was in a very scary spot as a 25 year old.

He had played his heart out.

But the debts mounted much higher than his tolerance to live with it.

So Matt did the only thing he was prepared to do – come home and work. Even as a celebrated young Canadian golf professional the dream would have to take a rest. Despite the publicity and regard for his game the money was just not there to make another push.

From a small Canadian city, with limited contacts, and with the fear of creating a bigger financial burden for himself Matt chose to temporarily walk away and get things in order. Inherently shy, he was not the kind of person to go begging for money. It was his dream after all, not anyone elses.

Admittedly, he was also hard on himself – too hard by many accounts and that was often perceived as temperamental. He had to learn to eat up the bad and smile for the people even when he did not feel like it. It was expected and he had not always delivered.

As has been done by other aspiring pros Matt ground it out. The Canadian Tour winner could be found delivering food, hawking clubs at a golf shop, and a variety of other jobs that did not utilize his tremendous golf abilities. It was a strong dose of reality.

He did keep playing. Just the occasional local event. And his talent did not go away. It may have only been the occasional pro-am but his skills were still sharp. That was apparent by his winning scores.

So after a year of basically being the average working guy; struggling to keep a car in good repair, and his phone bill paid, Matt knew he had to do it. To get back in the saddle. Time was passing him by.

He struck out on the Carolina based Tarheel Tour this past spring with the support of a small local group. Hard sold shares for sure but at least enough to start out on. He played just eight events, missed just one cut and topped out at a third place finish.

He was ready in late May to head back to the Canadian Tour with the understanding that he would be granted full status based on his past play. The would get him a spot in each field. All ready to start the “Canadian Swing” on tour, just before he headed to British Columbia he was informed that the status would still require him to Monday qualify for most events – a risky proposition with with only four spots available each week. The only guarantee would be a big tab for travel and lodging on his credit card. He had been down that road before. He took a pass.

He found a job back home and played when he could.

This fall a sponsor came forward to provide some support for Matt to return to Canadian Tour Qualifying. Just as he did in his first attempt out of college, he passed through easily – a tie for 4th secured his status for 2009. The sponsor will also support him for a foray on to the Gateway Tour in Florida starting this coming January.

In the meantime, Matt is left to get his affairs in order. Fitness, finances, equipment, travel plans – all the things a young pro takes on in addition to having to tee it up successfully.

Until he gets to Florida to start competing though, Matt is left playing golf with people like me.

That brings us back to today. How good is a player like this that few have heard of but Oklahoma State’s legendary golf coach Mike Holder (think Charles Howell, Bob Tway, Scott Verplank, Hunter Mahan) called “the best ball striker I have ever seen.”? We could not put up much competition as he breezed through the course in 33-29-62 (Par 35-37-72). It was the second 62 he shot this year. He was eight under par for the last eight holes alone.

And tomorrow, unlike the PGA Tour stars he aims to become, Matt will be back to waiting tables. Undoubtedly one of his pizza-loving customers will be a golfer and have no idea what other skills their server possesses.

In fact, among his tables will likely be some two handicap golfer who dreams, like Matt, of making it to the PGA Tour.

Chances are though, unlike Matt, he has no idea what it takes to get there…

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