At age 36, Justin Hicks is a rookie on the PGA Tour

March 6, 2011

Some people think that PGA Tour pros all follow the same path—silver spoons, training academies, All-America awards, Tour riches. That’s never been true. There have always been guys like me.

My family was lucky enough that we could join a country club when I was nine, thanks to my dad’s job as general manager at an environmental waste-management company in Michigan. From 12 on, I was a golf addict, and while that led to a reasonable high school career, not many colleges were banging down my door.

Michigan had recruited my brother, Todd, to play football, and I never forgot the trip I took with him to Ann Arbor, so that’s where I went. It was a wonderful school with a challenging golf course but not a great golf reputation. I made the team as a walk-on and remained a walk-on for four seasons. As a fill-in player, I would compete in only two to four tournaments a year, but when I graduated in 1997, I decided to try professional golf. A lot of people from my hometown and my home club essentially said, What?

I couldn’t blame them, but they didn’t know one thing: I always played better in the summer, without the distractions of school and social activities. That fact gave me courage. I grew increasingly convinced that there was great golf inside me. I thought, If I played full time, who knows what could happen? Armed with a small nest egg from family and friends, I moved to Florida and turned pro.

I finished fifth in my first Golden Bear mini-tour event and made about $5,000. I thought, Wow, this is what it’s all about! But after that the money went quickly. Playing golf was more difficult and expensive than I had imagined.

Within a few months I found myself working at a country club in Palm Beach County. For the next six years, at several clubs, I did everything from cleaning clubs in the bag room to picking the range to folding sweaters in the pro shop, scraping together enough money to get by. Thanks to more contributions from friends and club members, I continued to enter some mini-tour events but couldn’t seem to get to the next level. It was tough seeing college friends get law degrees, Ph.D.’s and M.B.A.’s and make good money, while me and my B.A. in political science were in a bag room making $4 an hour plus tips. Or worse, getting turned down for bag-room jobs in favor of high school kids because I was overqualified.

The work itself often veered between brutish and boring, arduous and monotonous. The bag room took a heavy toll on my hands, especially during the winter, when the combination of cold air, wet rags and lifting 40-pound golf bags all day would make my skin crack with countless little cuts. I hit lots of balls with painful, bloody hands.

But I was determined to turn lemons into lemonade. The bag room became my weight room. I’d use those staff bags to do biceps curls, shoulder presses and other exercises. I haven’t been that fit since. A Walkman made picking the range less mind numbing, and I’d try to schedule that work for weekends when I could listen to the PGA Tour, which helped keep my ultimate goal top of mind. One surreal memory: riding the ball picker while listening to the NBC telecast from Doral after I had Monday-qualified and missed the cut earlier in the week.

Ours was not a glamorous lifestyle. My wife, Kathryn, and I missed out on countless friends’ weddings because we didn’t have the money to buy plane tickets and a gift. We certainly caught some flak, but that was where we were—living paycheck to paycheck.

Kathryn, who was in grad school working to become an occupational therapist for the first three years of my career, was always amazingly supportive of my ambition, as were my parents. Still, there were a number of times when Mom or Dad would happen to mention alternative careers. They had expected me to go to graduate school. There were certainly periods, especially when I was injured, when I thought about getting an M.B.A. and working in the golf business. Looking back on it, I see that my parents handled my career choice with more grace and composure than logic might have suggested.

Thankfully, there were enough early signs of success to keep that pressure from building too much. Plus, my parents knew how hard I was trying—up at 6 a.m. every day to get in two hours of practice before work.

Those were lean years but not hard times. I learned a lot from my coworkers and made great friends. I met all kinds of people and learned how to relate to everyone. And I met a lot of guys who worked their way up, either as players or as head professionals.

I also witnessed the opposite. Guys who didn’t have a lot in terms of golf ability but had plenty of financial resources. And I saw—and still see—players who are trying to make it rack up massive credit-card debt without working to supplement their golf incomes. It’s hard to see people who won’t bite the bullet to make ends meet. I learned the value of a dollar.

I was always the turtle in the race, and it wasn’t until 2004—seven years after turning pro and only a year removed from the bag rooms—that I made it to the final stage of Q school, my third attempt. People don’t realize that between the entry fee and expenses, you’re looking at $10,000 or more to play in that tournament. It’s a big gamble. I wound up with limited Nationwide tour status and had a few good rounds on that circuit, but then I injured my hand, which set me back for more than a year.

I returned to the pro shops, making $9 an hour answering phones and folding sweaters. This was probably my low point. Kathryn and I had just moved into our new home, where I could look out my back window and see people playing golf. The game was all around me, yet I couldn’t take part in it. I could swing a club without pain—but if I tried to hit a ball, the impact felt as if someone were taking a hammer and nail to my palm. To see elderly people knocking a ball around when I was in the prime of my life and unable to do what I loved, all because of a hairline fracture in one little bone in my hand, was torturous.

After surgery, I returned to the Nationwide tour in ’07, where I tied for second in the National Mining Association Pete Dye Classic. Yes, I’d had those good moments on the Florida mini-tours, but I wasn’t sure how indicative they were of playing with seasoned pros, traveling and everything else that goes into building a career on the PGA Tour. So as crazy as it sounds, after a decade of chasing the dream, that Pete Dye Classic was the first time I started to think, Maybe we can make a go of this.

If my name rings a bell, it’s likely because I was the “journeyman” who shared the lead after the first round of the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Though I faded back into the pack—my moment in the sun was somehow eclipsed by the Tiger Woods-Rocco Mediate playoff—I experienced the pressure cooker in its entirety. I had my first big press conference. I hit shots while the voice in the back of my head said, I wonder what Johnny Miller and Dottie Pepper thought of that swing. You may not care, but you know they’re saying something, because you’re leading the tournament and you’re not supposed to be.

I must have taken something from the experience because two weeks later I won my first Nationwide tour event, the Ford Wayne Gretzky Classic. Still, I finished outside the top 25 on the Nationwide money list and ended the year without my PGA Tour card.

I won again on the Nationwide tour in May 2010 and spent the rest of the season inside the top 25, but by the time I had reached the season-ending Tour Championship, I was near the bubble. I played reasonably well for 3 1/2 days but then made five bogeys coming home to shoot 41. There were still several players on the course who could have knocked me out of the top 25 and out of the big time.

Part of me thought, The universe is good, and we’ve done enough this year for it to work out. But another part of me knew that if you give things the opportunity to go wrong, they generally do. I walked off the 18th green feeling that the opportunity had slipped through my grasp, and I was sick to my stomach.

In the end the universe was good, at least to me. Other players slipped back, and I was the last player to earn his Tour card, number 25 on the money list, with only $2,010 to spare. Intense joy collided with intense relief—fireworks and waterworks.

Making the PGA Tour means everything to me. Ever since college the goal has been to play against the best and see what I’m capable of. I’ve been a pro golfer for 13 years—13 years of blood, sweat and tears. I’m 36 years old, but I feel like I’m 23 again.

Cinderella story or not, I don’t want to simply make an appearance at the dance and rush home. The goal is to make a life on the PGA Tour. Much of this season will be about taking advantage of opportunities and finding a way to stay sharp when I’m not getting into events. The competition is harder, but I know if I bring my game, I can succeed, and I’m going to work as hard as anyone. I’ll try my best on every shot in every round, whether I’m in contention or miles from making the cut. This turtle is in the race for the long haul.

The Hicks File
Age: 36

Hometown: Wyandotte, Mich.

Career highlights: Two-time Nationwide tour winner.

Did you know? He’s often confused with another Justin Hicks, a teaching pro in San Diego who has played in a handful of PGA Tour events. Once he was dropped from a Nationwide tour field because officials saw that a Justin Hicks was playing in a PGA Tour event the same week.

The latest: After missing the cut in his first two starts on the PGA Tour, Hicks finished 67th at last week’s Mayakoba Classic.