World Golf League: Amateurs get chance at payday

The average amateur golfer can now play tournaments for cash, for something more than a $5 nassau or a certificate redeemable in the pro shop. Possible big bucks are available for John Q. Publinx, the guy with tubes and a ball retriever in his bag or a player of any skill level who doesn’t care about amateur status. And it doesn’t matter if you take a nonconforming, thin-faced driver to the first tee.

For $95 anyone can join the World Golf League and play in local tournaments with the hopes of advancing to the national championship. Next week, more than 300 competitors will meet in North Carolina to play for a piece of a $1 million pie that will be paid out to six flights at the 54-hole tournament.

Earlier this year, WGL founder Mike Pagnano said, “The World Golf League is now the WWF of the golf world, or the XFL.” Now he’s backing off the comparisons, but not by much.

“It’s about time a venue was created for the everyday golfer to play for pay,” Pagnano said from his Lake Mary, Fla., office. “The PGA Tour has somewhat of a monopoly. It’s the Microsoft of the golf industry. We don’t want to come across as a renegade organization trying to buck the traditions of the game. We want to educate the golfer that it’s not bad to play for money. It adds excitement to the game. It gives people a chance to experience the thrill and competition of playing something similar to a PGA Tour event.”

The concept has taken hold in the states and is being licensed globally, Pagnano said. Last year, the WGL had 7,800 paid members; this year it has 70,000, he said. The national tournament last fall paid $200,000 to each of four flights, with $30,000 to winners. At Sunset Beach, N.C., Nov. 1-3, each of the six, 50-player flights will play for $125,000, ranging from $45,000 for first to $1,250 for 10th.

Because of travel disruptions after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the WGL canceled regional qualifying tournaments that were scheduled to be held from mid-September through mid-October. Instead, the WGL invited 600 players, including all the players who were to have advanced to regionals from one-day qualifiers across the country.

An entrant who intends to play for prize money – paid out only at the national level – would lose his amateur status, according to the U.S. Golf Association.. Steve Biernecki, a USGA Rules of Golf official, said players who want to compete in the WGL final but remain amateurs should notify WGL officials in writing that they are not playing for money.

But, Biernecki said, for those who want to play for money, there is no official process of identifying an amateur – whether playing to a 1 handicap or a 21 handicap - who effectively becomes professional.

“There is nothing you can do to stop them” from entering amateur events unless it’s public knowledge that they have forfeited their status, he said.

“It’s kind of like having a noncomforming club in my bag. If no one knows I have it, and I don’t tell anyone. . .” said Biernecki, his voice trailing off.

Except for allowing nonconforming drivers, the WGL follows USGA rules and has anti-sandbagging provisions in place.

“We’ve all been misinformed for years that only the PGA Tour players and elite few can play for money, and the rest of us, who comprise 99.7 percent, must play for gift certificates,” said Pagnano. “Some just don’t understand what it means to lose amateur status. Some people think the police will show up and arrest them, or that they’ll become a scratch player.

“In reality, losing amateur status means nothing to 99.7 percent of golfers. It just means they don’t play in USGA (and club) events. Most don’t do that anyway. We proved last year that when it comes to playing for money, most people will do it.”

Pagnano said 80 percent of WGL members are 18 to 45 years old, play public courses and make about $40,000 per year. “They are the working guys who don’t have access to organized golf,” he said.

While Jerry Karbowniczek of Eyria, Ohio, isn’t an exact fit in the WGL demographic, he lives to play competitive golf. And after being laid off in August from Nordson Corp., where he had worked as an engineer for 27 years, the 10-handicapper is pumped about the chance to score serious cash, regardless of losing his amateur status.

“I haven’t played any amateur, USGA-sanctioned events,” said the 54-year-old Karbowniczek. “If I can win $45,000, I’ll take the money.”

Karbowniczek said he plans to arrive a few days before the tournament to get in some practice rounds, and added that the event could be a good opportunity for networking as he looks for a new line of work.

Also traveling to North Carolina will be 55-year-old retiree George Atkinson, whose background could give him an edge against muni hustlers. Atkinson was an All-Pro defensive back with the Oakland Raiders from 1968-78, and widely was known as “The Hit Man.” Playing with teammates nicknamed “The Assassin” (Jack Tatum) and “Dr. Death” (Skip Thomas), Atkinson is used to tense situations.

Four weeks before the championship, the 6-handicapper had his game face on.

“I’m thinking about winning,” he said emphatically from his El Cerrito, Calif., home. “I’m used to playing in competition, and that’s why I feel like it’s (the WGL) a good deal for me. I rise to the occasion when it’s competition.”

What he wasn’t thinking about was the end of his amateur status.

“It’s forfeited as far as I’m concerned,” he chuckled.

For Atkinson, whose new career on Bay Area television and radio keeps him close to the football field, the winner’s check is twice what he was paid as a mid-round draft choice, not including the bonus he made for being named rookie of the year.

One WGL detractor has been the PGA Tour, which has fought the World Golf League name since the Tour has ownership in the World Golf Championships and World Golf Village.

“They’re just busting our chops,” Pagnano said. So after discussions with a trademark attorney, the new venture has decided to use WGL instead of World Golf League.

The WGL got a boost last year when The Golf Channel ran reports of the finals. Pagnano said his organization received 18,000 e-mails and phone calls within a day.

“When they saw the average player winning $30,000, they jumped off the couch,” he said. “They can relate to that. They can’t relate to Phil Mickelson.”

While TV exposure has helped, the WGL couldn’t exist without the Internet. Handicaps, tournament results and schedules, etc., are listed on www.worldgolfleague.com.

On the other hand, the WGL counts renowned teacher pro Jim McLean, Tour player Fulton Allem, supermodel Beverly Johnson, baseball’s Jose Canseco and former NFL linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Rickey Jackson among its supporters. Allem and Jackson each won $30,000 for taking their flights last year, and Taylor banked $15,000 for second. The winner’s check was more than Allem made from any PGA Tour event in 2000, though he has done considerably better this season.

Pagnano said that at next week’s final, touring pros and teaching professionals will be grouped into two divisions that separate them from the rest of field. Besides Allem and LT returning, Jim Thorpe, who has made $1.7 million on the Senior PGA Tour this year, and PGA Tour player Donnie Hammond are expected to compete.

“It’s a wonderful concept because amateurs can feel like they’re in a big tournament,” Allem said of the WGL. “If run properly, it’s going to boom and go worldwide. Playing in the WGL will put a guy under the gun, where he’s swallowing peanut butter over a 3-foot putt and choking his brains out. A lot of guys want to give themselves an opportunity to do it because until the time comes he’ll never know.”

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