RISE OF THE UNDERGROUND TOUR

All you need are your clubs, your nerve and—here's the rub—your cash, and you, too, can lead the life of a big-money pro. There is more than $10 million to be earned on a brand-new golf circuit
March 26, 1973

Last Sunday before a gallery of 28,000 spectators a relatively obscure pro named Jim Colbert won the Greater Jacksonville Open and pocketed a check for $26,000. Colbert was pro golf's showcase winner of the week. Hardly anyone noticed, but the three even less familiar figures at left—Bob Ford, Gary McCord and Jim Barker—were also handed first-place checks last week. They were winners in a suddenly widespread, highly lucrative underground world of tournament golf, a phenomenon not yet a year old, but which in 1973 will outstrip the highly visible showcase circuit of Nicklaus, Trevino, Palmer et al. in total prize money.

Ford, McCord, Barker and a collection of more than 1,000 other might-bes and never-quites, players who have not yet qualified for the PGA's major league of golf or players who have tried it and not prospered, are competing for purses that this year may reach the staggering total of $10 million, compared to the $8.5 million of which the big tour is so proud. The secret to it all? The players themselves put up the prize money.

This new pro golf phenomenon does not even have a name yet. It is being called the mini-tour, but it is certainly not mini nor is it a tour, since each of its many divisions, so to speak, remains in a central location. Perhaps perma-tour would be a more appropriate title, or immovable feast.

Call them what you will, perma-tours have spread like crabgrass. In less than 12 months they have begun to sink flourishing roots into such seemingly arid pro-sport venues as Tampa and Crystal River, Fla., Valdosta and Decatur, Ga., San Antonio and Austin, Texas, Anaheim, Calif. and Grossinger, N.Y. The events are drawing covetous glances from ambitious amateurs eager for pro experience, land developers seeking profits and publicity, and some skilled performers from the big tour who have fallen on lean times. Its most enthusiastic supporters even harbor the far-out notion that someday the perma-tour will rival the big tour and change the entire lifestyle of professional tournament golf.

The perma-tour formula is simple: you bet on yourself. Basically it is nothing more than a sweepstakes. Initially a promoter will recruit golfers, usually from 150 to 175, who are willing to pay a sizable entry fee, one that ranges from $1,250 to $7,000. The promoter then provides a series of weekly tournaments—anywhere from four to 20 or so—for prize money that can total as high as $100,000 for a 36-hole event, with as much as $12,000 going to the winner. The usual restriction is that the entrants must not have won sizable amounts of money on the PGA tour.

The first perma-tour was launched last May in Tampa by a local golf pro, Glenn Peeples. Peeples is a 41-year-old Tampa native who has prospered in golf, real estate and other investments. He not only has good business sense, he has a lively imagination. Two years ago he thought he saw a way to fill a vacuum that existed within the world of competitive pro golf.

"There were 468 golfers attempting to qualify regionally for the PGA tour's playing school last year," says Peeples, "but only 25 ultimately earned their cards. That leaves an awful lot of frustrated guys looking around for a place to play until they can try to qualify again a year later."

Peeples' solution was a series of 20 weekly, two-day tournaments for $20,000 each to be played on two Tampa courses. And his innovation was the surprisingly accurate presumption that the contestants themselves could be asked to fully underwrite the project, prize money and all. The tournaments, therefore, would not need to rely on such PGA tour necessities as commercial sponsors, television contracts or even spectators.

To get things started, Peeples sought help from two business friends, both executives with a Florida development company called Sunstate Builders. Sunstate is supervised by the Ervin Company, a North Carolina-based developer, which, like Sunstate, is a subsidiary of American Cyanamid. Peeples' friends were Sunstate's board chairman, DeWitt Thompson, an enthusiastic golfer who seldom breaks 100, and Sunstate's president, Matt Jetton, who seldom even plays. Both expressed considerable doubt that enough young players could afford Peeples' projected entry fee of $7,000, but Peeples' sights were set on bigger game as the source of revenue: wealthy backers for the pros. He conjured up the clean-cut image of Tampa's Eddie Pearce, then one of the best amateurs in the country and a likable, attractive youngster of 20.

"Both of you would be happy to put up a little money to sponsor Eddie in something like this," Peeples said, "and the same will be true for local favorites all over the country." Convinced, the two Sunstate men anted up $10,000 each and became partners with Peeples in what they called National Tournament Golf Association, Inc.

Peeples circulated word of his proposed venture by taking out full-page four-color ads in the weekly Golf World and by hiring two former touring pros, Gordon Jones and J.C. Goosie, and a retired school administrator, Tim O'Brien, to talk up the project at the small sectional tournaments in Florida.

There was an immediate response from all over the country. Peeples received 800 written queries and phone calls. But the flow of confirmed entries was not quite so overwhelming. On Tee Day—May 1st of last year—Peeples had only 61 paid-up contestants. But when the NTGA proved it was for real the roster began to grow. By the time the first 20-week session drew to a close, 109 golfers (the additional 48 on a prorated basis) were competing for their own money. The list included a smattering of former touring pros, like Goosie and Jones, plus such outstanding amateurs as Jim Simons, Tom Kite and Pearce. Now, for the first time, a large number of young pros had a chance to groom themselves for the major leagues.

Not surprisingly, the NTGA has proven to be a fruitful pro tour spawning ground. Of the 25 playing cards issued at the PGA Qualifying School at Napa, Calif. last November, eight went to golfers who had sharpened their games in Tampa earlier that summer. This list included Simons and Kite as well as some lesser knowns, Tom Jenkins, Larry Stubblefield, Greg Edwards, Andy North, Mike McCullough and a tall, blond graduate of San Diego State named Lon Hinkle, who had stopped by in Tampa at midseason on his way home from a visit to an uncle in Miami, found a sponsor in J.C. Goosie and stayed to play.

Hinkle won only $2,200 in 12 weeks with the NTGA, but in his first PGA tournament, the Heritage Classic at Hilton Head, S.C. last November, he tied for third and earned $7,350.

"Tampa was absolutely the best thing that ever happened to my game," says Hinkle. "I got a chance to play with all the guys who thought they were any good. I got to see what the competition might be like before getting out here on the PGA tour."

Even Simons, who led the 1971 U.S. Open after three rounds, who was near the lead halfway through last summer's $250,000 Westchester Classic, and who is no stranger to high-level competitive pressures, gained what he considers valuable training during his nine weeks in Tampa. "It was good to be exposed to the constant pressure of knowing that missing a short putt here and there might mean the difference between making $1,000 or $500," he says. Simons won $10,948 in Tampa.

For such players the perma-tour is schooling for the big things ahead, but for others it can be an end in itself. For instance, last summer's leading money winner at the NTGA with $21,169 was Terry Catlett, who had twice failed to get his card at the PGA school. Catlett is back again in Tampa this winter. A similar case is John Beetham, a young Californian who has become the roving apostle of the perma-tour. Last summer Beetham won $18,106 in Tampa, then went on to San Antonio where he earned $7,600. He is now playing in still another perma-tour, this one back home in Yorba Linda, Calif., where after 10 weeks he has won $11,120.

Another dedicated perma-tourist is 23-year-old Bill Calfee, an All-America college golfer from Maryland. Calfee gave up a career in mortgage banking and went to Tampa last spring when Peeples himself volunteered to be his sponsor. He played with only modest success in the NTGA's first session, but in the second he is the leading money winner with $19,232 after 17 events.

"If it wasn't for something like this I would never have turned pro," says Calfee. "I knew I wasn't ready for the tour and I'm not sure now I even want to try. This doesn't have the glamour of the PGA tour, but the heck with the glamour."

And then there is Orville Moody, the 1969 U.S. Open champion, who for three years had been on a long slide into oblivion. He ranked 126th on the 1972 PGA money list. Late last year Moody joined the perma-tour series being run in San Antonio, primarily to try and get his game back into shape. He won three of nine tournaments and $25,445, and did not even stay for the final week. Now Old Sarge is right back in the groove. Two second-place finishes have, helped him win $43,000 already on the PGA tour this year. The experience has proved so gratifying that Moody has reinvested some of his recent winnings in an Austin perma-tour called the Lago Vista Classic, which he will help promote.

Its initial success immediately inspired a flock of imitators, but Tampa still leads the way. It had a full field of 175 players competing for $550,000 during its second 20-week session, which ends this week. Starting April 23rd, Peeples has planned four consecutive 10-week sessions that will dwarf everything that has gone before. Each Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the NTGA will host a $100,000 tournament, and on Thursday and Friday a $60,000 event. That figures out to $6.4 million over 40 weeks, all to be played for by a horde of unknowns. It's enough to give even Jack Nicklaus pause.

"At first we were frankly in this to make money, but now our attitude has changed," Peeples says. "Each of us has become attached to the project and to the kids that come here to play. The truth is, the NTGA is just breaking even."

Which is not to say that money is not being made somewhere, directly or indirectly. Peeples, Thompson and Jetton have, for free, transferred ownership of the NTGA over to Sunstate Builders, with Peeples continuing as tournament director. Sunstate's board chairman, Thompson, who must answer also to the stockholders at the Ervin Company and, ultimately, American Cyanamid, considers the NTGA project as a powerful promotional tool and a sufficiently sound investment to have sunk $1.25 million of Sunstate's money into the purchase and refurbishment of the Quail Hollow Golf and Tennis Club north of Tampa, where most of the rounds are played.

But if Tampa is off to the fastest start, others are galloping up from behind. The PGI-Four Seasons Tour in Valdosta has completed two sessions and has scheduled a $1 million series for San Diego this summer. Anaheim is currently in the midst of a $525,000 competition, and Decatur will host tournaments next month where the purse will be $150,000 for five weeks. San Antonio has finished its winter session and plans another this spring. The perma-tour at Lago Vista gets under way next week, and this summer a group calling itself the Professional Golf Classics is planning to put on a perma-tour in New York's Catskill region. The Florida PGA is sponsoring a 16-week session that will pay $640,000. And others may soon be joining the action.

Is the PGA scared, angry, concerned, delighted? PGA tour commissioner Joe Dey views the new trend with benign interest. "Anything that gives these fellows a chance to compete is wonderful," he says, "but I don't see it as ever becoming a threat to the major tour. The essential difference, of course, is that on our tour the players are competing for someone else's money. In these things, it's their own."

Dey thus suggests the perma-tour's major weakness, the fact that, to borrow the historian's phrase, it may carry within itself the seeds of its own destruction. It is not possible, given the distribution of prize money now in use, for more than about 20% of the players entered to break even or come out ahead. This means that 80% are losers. Not many losers, or their sponsors, will want to try more than once or twice. So the supply of players might run out, like fresh candidates for a chain letter.

This possibility does not alarm Peeples, who feels his NTGA can stay in the game as long as golf pros like to play for money. "In a way Joe Dey and his tour haven't taken care of the needs of golf," he said recently. "Too many fine players are shut out. There must be a better way. I see outside sponsors like Buick or Pepsi-Cola becoming involved so that the players put up less and less to play for more and more. I see telecasts of the tournaments each week. If the PGA would help out, I can see this as the logical way to qualify for the pro tour.

"But what I really see in the end is not a pro tour at all, just three or four regionally oriented things going on simultaneously around the country, with the top players setting out from time to time to meet in six or eight major championships. Don't you think something like that would appeal to even a Jack Nicklaus?"

To augment this second coming of tournament golf, Peeples and Thompson are dreaming up tentative plans for the construction of a multimillion-dollar golf resort—four courses, houses, motels, condominiums, the works, all owned by Sunstate—for which the NTGA and its tournaments would serve as a glorious promotional showpiece. It could serve as a supreme monument to the perma-tour. Unless, of course, it turned out to be a white elephant. Which is fitting, for isn't that the perma-tour game? You put up your dough and you take your chances.

THREE PHOTOSThree for the money in one enriching week: Bob Ford (upper left), a winner in Tampa; Gary McCord, who picked up a huge $5,000 in Huntington Beach, Calif.; and Jim Barker, who rallied from the weeds in Lake City, Fla.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)