It's 8 a.m. at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club, and it looks like just another Tuesday in Maricopa, Arizona. A layer of dew coats the driving range, the sun and temperature both rising steadily. Off to the left side of the range is the first tee, where a pop-up tent adorned with an "All-American Gateway Tour" decal explains why Craig Barlow, 42, has driven here from his Las Vegas home five hours away. Gateway. As in, a portal to someplace else.
Barlow plunks down his golf bag on the range, slips a glove onto his hand and surveys the scene. His bag isn't a "tour bag," the enormous and heavy totem that denotes residence on pro golf's highest plateau. It's a blue carry bag. It sports a mash-up of brands, as does Barlow, with his patchwork-quilt ensemble of Nike golf shoes, Travis Mathew shirt and Taylor-Made cap. This makes him blend in perfectly at Southern Dunes. If the PGA Tour's catchphrase is, "These guys are good," the Gateway's may as well be, "By whatever means and with whatever gear necessary." Mismatched logos? Par for the course.
"Every golfer is addicted to this," Barlow says. "We always feel that we're this close to where we want to go." He pinches his thumb and index finger so that they almost touch. "When the carrot is that close to your nose, and it feels like it's so easy to grab, that's what every golfer is after."
With the Web.com Tour taking a break in January, professional golf as we know it is defined by the PGA Tour's two gilded tournaments in Hawaii, where the best players in the world work on their tans while playing for millions of dollars in the land of hula skirts. But below the PGA Tour, below the Web.com Tour, and well under the radar, mini-tour players like Barlow are hard at work hitting the greatest shots you've never seen. And whether a given week's Tour stop is Hawaii or elsewhere in the Lower 48, to aspiring pros dangling from the lower rungs, playing the PGA Tour is paradise.
If the Web.com Tour is the equivalent of Triple-A baseball, one step below the bigs, then mini-tours -- while unaffiliated with the PGA Tour -- are Single-A. Rookie ball. It's the lowest professional level in the sport. Mini-tours are about progression, not sustenance. The goal is escape -- ASAP.
Tuesday at Southern Dunes doesn't much resemble a pro tournament. There are no caddies; players ride in carts. Many wear shorts. The only spectators are the odd set of parents, and first-tee jitters take on added weight: Players cut entry-fee checks in the amount of $1,400 for the chance to compete for the $8,000 first prize. (Can you imagine a Tour pro ponying up $250,000 in the hope of taking home a $1 million-plus Tour win?) Most will lose money, but that's the cost of doing business if you want your shot at making the Show, where the checks have twice as many zeros.
"You can't compare the two," says Barlow, who played for several years on the PGA Tour and competed in six U.S. Opens. "Playing on Tour, you get on that first tee, and you've got stuff shooting through your veins that you didn't know was in there. When you pull off shots in front of people and in front of the camera, it gives you confidence that can really push you. Then you come out here and there's no one watching. On Tour, I knew how well I hit the shot by how loud the roar was. But now I hit a good shot and I'm just like everyone else -- I wait and get up to the green to find out."
Let's flash back to the 1999 Sony Open in Hawaii, where Barlow was one of those guys working on his tan. He made the cut that week, and over the next decade he would make 57 percent of his cuts on Tour, earning more than $5 million. His career highlight: tying for 26th with Ernie Els, Angel Cabrera and Henrik Stenson at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Tiger Woods missed the cut.
A common thread for mini-tour players, though, is that for every high moment, there's a low moment -- very low. For every T26 finish in the U.S. Open, there's a season like the one Barlow had in 2011. He'd lost his Tour status a few years before and was surviving with a split schedule on the PGA and Web.com tours. Barlow -- who has a wife, LeeAnn, of 17 years and a 5-year-old son, Riley -- was getting by. But in 2011, he made just $66,646, a far cry from his seven-figure winnings from 2006, his best year on Tour.
"Life always has different paths that you can take," Barlow says. "I took the wrong path. I started feeling sorry for myself. It snowballed to the point where nothing I did could make me happy."
At the end of 2011, Barlow sat down for lunch with two friends in Las Vegas. "I didn't have a good year," he says. "It was the end of the season, and I didn't get through Q-School. I opened my soul to them and told them that I didn't think I had the desire anymore. At that moment, I didn't. If I didn't have them to talk to, I might have thrown in the towel. They said that I was meant to be a golfer, that life goes through ups and downs and that my game was going to go through ups and downs, too. They said, "It's your job to battle the course.""
Barlow decided to change the way he approached each shot, each round, each tournament. He started caring again about his attitude and outlook, trusting that his game would follow. He typed an inspirational quote into the notes of his iPhone: "If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present."
He now treats that phrase like golf scripture. "I came to the conclusion that I'm a golfer," Barlow said. "That doesn't mean it's easy, that doesn't mean that it's hard -- it's what I want to do. I had a stretch where my attitude was very poor and my game followed it. My attitude now is good, and I'm in love with golf again."
When the game gets hard, how do you cope? It's a question that mini-tour players face almost every day.
The event in Maricopa is so mired in anonymity that it doesn't even have a name. It features a field of 40 players playing for a purse of $42,000. Of the 16 players who will make the cut, only eight will earn more than $2,000. That isn't exactly PGA Tour coin for guys like Barlow, who is still working to provide for his wife and son back in Vegas as he keeps trying to become the golfer he used to be.
At least Barlow made it to the Tour. Trent Sanders has not. He's just starting his professional career.
A recent graduate of Washington State, Sanders, six feet one and 180 pounds, has a healthy tan and a punishing long game. What the 24-year-old doesn't have much of is cash. In the 17 mini-tour events he played in 2014 -- between the All-American Gateway Tour in Arizona and the eGolf Tour on the East Coast -- Sanders made just five cuts to pocket $11,600. Entry fees cost about $1,400 per event, which means that most weeks he's in the red. To make ends meet, he relies on sponsorships from friends, family and investors.
"It's enticing, the idea of just taking a normal job, where you can stay in one spot and have a planned life and know where your next paycheck will come from," Sanders says. "There's a lot to be said for providing for a family, so I might look into what else would help me make more money. But having a golf course as your office is pretty enticing, too. I can't imagine not playing golf competitively. It's all I've ever done."
Still, a job to supplement his income, Sanders explains, wouldn't replace his gig as a touring professional. "I don't think it's worth going into [the life of a touring pro] unless you're prepared to do whatever it takes to find a way to keep going. With that mindset, I see myself doing it for another 20 to 30 years."
Sanders, who's every bit as green as the course he's playing on, has to practice creative belt-tightening. He spends his fall in Arizona, where he can shack up with his parents to save money. It's not the ideal post-grad life, but renting an apartment isn't easy with such an unreliable income. When he played on the East Coast in 2014, he and his wife, Rachel, stayed with friends for months at a time while she finished her schooling in Indiana.
While Rachel was taking exams, Sanders was driving his 2011 Kia Optima all over the country. He put 20,000 miles on the car in four months, traveling to Monday qualifiers and entering mini-tour events just a day later. If he wasn't sharp enough on the course that Monday, Sanders would jump back in the car and race to the nearest mini-tour location to grab a Tuesday tee time and another shot at competition. "You just throw as many slacks and shirts as you can into a suitcase," he says. "Hopefully you're gone long enough making it through qualifiers that you have to find a place to do laundry. You get a lot of wrinkled pants and un-ironed shirts, but it tends to work out."
Sometimes it doesn't. Those on the mini-tours play a golf version of blackjack: They flirt with being busted and broke, waiting and hoping for that hot streak, when bad bounces aren't so bad and good bounces are great. Top-10 finishes become top-3s and seconds become victories -- which lead to exemptions and a higher status on a better tour, getting them closer to the PGA Tour.
Such a hot streak can transform a Trent Sanders into a Jimmy Walker, Kevin Stadler or Brian Harman, three 2014 Tour winners who all used to play mini-tour events like the one in Maricopa. Such a hot streak can make a career. It can also lead to misplaced hopes and dashed dreams.
Andre Metzger played some of the best golf of his life on the mini-tours in 2012. That may seem like a blessing, but it led him to PGA Tour Canada, which became one of his biggest regrets.
A former junior college All-American from Norman, Oklahoma, Metzger, 33, is stout and speaks with a drawl. For years after graduation, his greatest opponent wasn't a golfer or a course but a form of arthritis that led to severe inflammation in his joints. He ached all over. Getting out of bed was a chore (although that helped him justify his video-game addiction), and in the winters he'd pop a dozen ibuprofen each day just to make it through his rounds caddying at Whisper Rock Golf Club in Scottsdale.
Starting in 2008, Metzger spent his summers playing the Dakotas Tour. For the first three years, he entered a handful of events and broke even, as he and his wife and caddie, Kim, visited her family in Sioux Falls, S.D. He notched top 5s in five of 11 events in 2011 but never found the winner's circle. Consistently high finishes are great on the PGA Tour, but they don't cut it in single-A ball.
"Financially, you just can't take it," Metzger says. "You're not making money on the mini-tours unless you're winning."
An arthritis drug called Humira eased the inflammation in his joints and allowed him to truly find his game. "It was the freakiest thing ever," he says. "I started playing golf again -- I start bombing the ball. I mean, just bombing it."
Metzger won three times in 2012 and grabbed the Player of the Year award on the Dakotas Tour. He seemed to be following in the footsteps of Kevin Streelman, a former Whisper Rock caddie who earned more than $2 million on the PGA Tour in 2014. But Metzger wasn't even ready for PGA Tour Canada.
"The worst mistake I ever made was qualifying for that dang PGA Tour Canada," Metzger says, adding that expenses (travel, hotel, meals, entry fees) took a toll. "I was spending $12,000 a month to get my ass kicked."
Metzger made one cut in four starts, pocketing just $1,593. "The competition was really good," he says. "On the Dakotas Tour, you're really only playing against 15 guys. On PGA Tour Canada, you're against all 150 guys." He confesses that money-related worries followed him inside the ropes, affecting his play. "I had spent so much, it was the only thing on my mind." Financial concerns convinced him to pack his bags and head back to the Dakotas Tour. "First event back in the States, I win it," Metzger says. "I'm like, what is going on?" That's the question he continues to ask, more than a year removed from his Canadian misadventure.
In October, as Barlow and Sanders head to Maricopa, Metzger sits in his Scottsdale condo trying to decide if trekking to the tournament just 40 miles south on Highway 347 is worth the hassle and effort. With a baby on the way, he's somewhere between the wide-eyed innocence of Trent Sanders and the Tour-tested experience of Craig Barlow.
"I don't know why I'm not at least on the Web.com Tour," Metzger says. "I actually think I'm good enough for the PGA Tour." He even thinks he can win a major.
"Not only do I believe in myself," Metzger says, "but I've had a lot of people over the last couple years say, "You've got the game. You've got the mentality. You've got it all. There's no reason you won't get there.""
But words of support only go so far. It's a vicious cycle for mini-tour players: Winning an event pays, of course, but to enter the event, you need money first.
"The toughest part about mini-tour golf is asking people for help," Metzger says. "That's not something that anybody wants to do, but unless you come from money, you have to."
Metzger doesn't come from money, and he's not fresh out of college. He's 33. Asking sponsors or family for financial aid at his age is like going trick-or-treating in high school. Metzger's mini-tour career kicked off in earnest in 2011 at Whisper Rock, when he met the GoDaddy.com founder, billionaire Bob Parsons.
"I told Bob, "Listen, man, I can do this,"" Metzger says. That month, the pair played two rounds, during which Metzger convinced Parsons to buy the aspiring pro some new clubs and to give Metzger $7,500 to compete on the Dakotas Tour in 2012. Metzger's Player of the Year title was impressive, but that was three years ago. Unlike Sanders, time is not on Metzger's side. And unlike Barlow, he lacks years of experience at the game's highest level. The clock is ticking, his future as a pro golfer hanging in the balance.
Barlow ties for ninth in Maricopa and earns $1,900. Metzger and Sanders miss the cut. For them, it's not a total waste, since this tournament isn't all about the money -- it's a preparatory event for the Web.com Qualifying Tournament, which concludes in December with 45 players earning membership for 2015. It starts in October, with more than a thousand of the world's best non–PGA Tour golfers competing at several courses, including Southern Dunes in Maricopa.
Sanders stays home to save money, but Metzger and Barlow send in their entry fees. Metzger advances through the first stage of qualifying in Arizona but injures his shoulder and washes out at the second stage in Texas.
That leaves Barlow, the guy who made a promise to himself to remain positive and keep his head clear of doubt. That vow is tested at the 108-hole Q-School finals at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Needing two birdies in his final four holes to gain partial status on the 2015 Web.com Tour -- one rung below the PGA Tour -- Barlow makes a triple-bogey on the 105th hole. Hopes dashed. "I'm disappointed, but that's how it goes," Barlow says. He adds, "It's a fine line. The difference between the PGA Tour, Web.com and the mini-tours is steps. It's not miles -- it's steps."
Metzger must now retrace those steps, back to the same mini-tour schedule between Arizona and the Dakotas, and back to the same small purses that keep him and his wife in a one-bedroom condo. A life of scarcity can also be rich with experiences. "There are many perks," Metzger says. "But I know one thing for sure: I didn't have any gray hair before this job."