Rich and successful golfers may possess more drive, hustle and talent for the game than 99.999% of the rest of us. But for most prosperous pros, fame and fortune didn’t arrive all at once. In fact, many passed through a period where the bills piled up, credit cards maxed out, and the future appeared uncertain…until that first, glorious paycheck arrived, validating their hard work and providing the impetus to keep pushing forward. Here are some of their memories of that moment.
I graduated college in 1995 and got a sponsor’s exemption into the Canon Greater Hartford Open, which is now the Travelers. My wife, Lisa, and I were already married. We had a young son, and we had—I don’t know what the number was, but it was red in our bank account. [Laughs] I promptly missed my first flight to Hartford, so I had to pay for a new flight, and I just kept digging a bigger financial hole than I was already in. I got to Hartford and played well, made the cut, and finished 18th. This was back before the Internet and before you could [easily] find out your earnings, so we had to wait until the next day. Lisa and I were sitting at breakfast on Monday, and I opened up the newspaper, found my name on the leaderboard and looked across to see [my winnings]. It was about $15,000, and I felt like it was $15 trillion. I had to do a double take, like, “Is that right?!” It was a great moment. My wife and I felt like we had everything. We immediately treated ourselves to eggs and waffles.
I remember my first check so clearly. It was £220 British pounds or sterling, for finishing second to Bobby Locke, who had already won the Open [Championship] three times and would win another a few years later. I seem to recall it being the Crown Mines event, but it was definitely in Johannesburg in 1953, one of the first tournaments I played in after I turned professional. I bought a small, second-hand convertible, and I kept running out of gas because I didn’t make enough money to fill it up every time. My father, who was a very hard worker, would get cross with me because I would have to call him to come help me push the car to a safe spot, and I would have to leave it there until I had more money to spend on gas. Perhaps that’s why I always tried my best to finish second-to-last rather than dead last.
2002, Atlanta, at the BellSouth Classic. I Monday-qualified; had my college buddy carrying my bag. I remember that if I had top 10’d that week, I would have played in the next open Tour event. And if I had two-putted the last green, that would have happened. I four-putted for bogey and lost a lot of money. I went from making a check of about $180,000 to making 50 grand. Great money, don’t get me wrong. But instead of playing New Orleans or Houston or wherever they were going, I was playing in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, on the Hooters tour.
I made, like, $250 on the Adams Tour, for a nice little T-20. The next week, I won an Adams Tour event and made $5,200. Those were my first two huge paychecks. The $250? I went to Whataburger, then paid for my hotel at the next tournament for two of the six nights. So it really didn’t get me very far.
I Monday-qualified in 2007 for the Milwaukee Open, which used to be called the U.S. Bank Open, and I made the cut. I was 17 years old, and that was really special for me. I ended up finishing well back in the pack: T-70. So I made $8,000—I think it was 8,000 dollars and 32 cents. At 17, that’s a lot of money! I was still underage, so it probably went to my parents. You’ll have to ask them what they did with it.
My first check ever was as a babysitter, and it was $20. I framed it. But for golf, I was 18. I believe my first event was in Hawaii, because that’s where our season started. I remember what I bought after my first win [the 2007 SBS Open at Turtle Bay], because it was right after high school graduation: a necklace. Of all the things in the world to buy! [Laughs] I still have the big cardboard check from that win. I think it’s in a closet somewhere. My mom saves everything.
I played in the Oklahoma Open as a South Carolina resident, and I won. I’ve always told everybody, I should’ve quit with my first pro win, batting 1.000! You know, 21 years old, $27,000 in my pocket. I thought I had more money than Davy Crockett. [Laughs] It was my first start as a pro, and a good experience—coming down the stretch and it mattered. You knew money was on the line. Afterward, I bought a pair of sunglasses for $100. Which was rare. I thought, “You should get some real sunglasses instead of the CVS versions, you know?”
It was a Gateway Tour event at PGA National. Finished third. I was fighting out the tournament to win it, but that finishing stretch—I played very conservative knowing I needed to make some money in order to keep playing. It was $13,000. It was just relief. When you’ve got no money and all of a sudden you’ve got $13,000 in your pocket, knowing that will keep you going for a few months, it was nice. Did I celebrate? Maybe a beer or two. And I might’ve stayed at a Comfort Inn instead of a Motel 6.
My first win on Tour was at Lake Merced, but I reached over $1 million when I won the Marathon Classic [in 2014], and I got a big cardboard check. I took it on the plane, all the way back home. I shop, but I normally don’t go big. I buy little things and they end up being big! Some girls say they buy handbags after every win. I’m huge into technology and electronics.
It was the California State Open, and it was probably like my second week as a pro. I think I finished eighth, and I made $1,600. I felt like I was rich! I think I took my parents out to dinner. We went to California Pizza Kitchen. It was, like, a $60 check, but I picked it up. It felt good to be able to treat my parents for once. Now, every time I visit them, we go somewhere nice for dinner. All the hard work that they put in for me, I’m trying to reciprocate.
I was 23. I finished fourth in the St. Louis Open. I made $1,500, and it was a massive check. To play in that event and to win something with four figures in it was a big deal. I probably made only a few bucks after travel expenses, hotel, gas and food. A top five pays a little different these days.
I played a mini tour event in Arizona at a course called Moon Valley. Drove up there with my buddy and stayed in a motel. That was my first big paycheck. I think it was $6,000. I was all fired up. My expenses for the week were, like, $300, so I felt like I was coming out big with that $6,000. I bought my buddy dinner. After all, he got the motel room for cheap.