DAVENPORT, Fla. – Two years ago, Keith Brown loaded his family into their 15-passenger van and drove 15 hours to Louisville, Ky., where his second-oldest child, Sarah, was representing the U.S. at the Junior Ryder Cup. Nine children, two parents, a 60-pound Siberian Husky named Bandit and luggage made the trek from New Jersey.
It’s the only vacation the Brown family has taken in the past five years.
When: Dec. 8-12 (90 holes)
Where: LPGA International (Champions and Legends courses), Daytona Beach, Fla.
What’s at stake: 20 LPGA cards for 2011 (remainder of field that makes the
72-hole cut earns conditional LPGA status)
“You have a ton of fun,” Brown said of his enormous family. “You just have it different.”
In a sea of academy kids, Sarah Brown stands out like a persimmon wood. Brown, 18, turned professional out of high school in part because her family needed the money.
“Bottom line, my entire family has sacrificed a lot for me to get where I am,” she said after wrapping up her fall SunCoast Tour swing. Keith Brown was out of a job for two years until recently landing a temporary gig as a mortgage consultant for a bank.
The Brown children, ages 2 to 20, know the value of a dollar. Sarah once shared a bedroom with her four younger sisters. That’s five girls in one room, with two sets of bunk beds and no dressers.
Everyone in the Brown household has a stake in Sarah’s golf career. This week, she will give LPGA Q-School another try, thanks to a network of donors. Her first season on the LPGA Futures Tour was less than mediocre: $6,094 in 12 events and a controversial disqualification. Brown got an apology from the Futures Tour and an undisclosed monetary settlement after she mistakenly was disqualified for nonconforming wedge grooves while contending in New Hampshire. The wedge she was using actually was conforming.
However, a recent victory on the SunCoast Tour has her riding high.
Brown concedes she was embarrassed to reveal on the American Junior Golf Association circuit that she wasn’t going to college because “in the junior golf world, it’s looked down upon.”
That’s why Brown admired Vicky Hurst, a former AJGA Player of the Year who dominated the Futures Tour before she could vote. Brown sent Hurst a private message on Facebook earlier in the year asking how she got her start financially. Hurst said she had help, not that she needed much with her $93,107 in 2008 earnings.
For Brown, it hasn’t been that easy.
A recipient of the AJGA’s ACE Grant in high school, Brown had to forgo the funding her senior year because she decided to turn professional. The grant is meant only for juniors striving for college scholarships.
“There were times we had to choose between funding a junior tournament and paying the mortgage,” Keith said. “Sometimes we went with the junior tournament.”
Last winter, Sarah landed a job at Dick’s Sporting Goods to earn money to get started on the Futures Tour. Keith caddied for Sarah while her mother, Marla, stayed home with the family and worked as a transcriptionist from their bedroom office.
“The first couple of events, I didn’t know when my next event would be because we didn’t have the money,” said Sarah, who missed the cut in her debut.
By Week 2 last May in Kansas, Sarah needed to make $1,000 to keep playing. Papers back home published stories on what was at stake. She made $291 at the rain-shortened event and began the long trek home, as Keith said, “absolutely penniless.”
As luck would have it, they received a call that night from a man near their hometown who had read about Sarah’s financial plight. They stopped at his house on the way home and there, sitting at the kitchen table with his wife, the donor wrote a $5,000 check. That got her through the Midwest swing.
Then, while in Illinois, Sarah received an e-mail from a man who had watched her play nine holes at the U.S. Women’s Amateur last summer in St. Louis. He, too, had read online about Sarah and pledged to fund her through Q-School.
“There are some unbelievable people out there,” Keith Brown said.
Over the summer, Sarah made roughly $1,800 in back-to-back events, and Keith wanted her to see the fruits of her labor. Rather than put the money back into entry fees, he used it to buy her a 1998 Chevy Malibu, which she used to drive to Florida by herself this fall for the SunCoast series.
“I was just like, hey, if I can make enough money for a car in two weeks, I can do anything,” said Brown, wide-eyed.
Anyone who has watched Keith caddie for his daughter can vouch for the pair’s intensity. He might be the most involved caddie in professional golf. Keith, however, knows his days are numbered. With seven kids still at home, he looked at Sarah’s solo journey down South as a rite of passage.
“I’m slowly working my way out of the picture,” Keith said, “though I’ll still be her swing coach as long as I’m breathing.”
That’s fine with Sarah, who was eager to return home to her chaotic family for Thanksgiving. She actually missed the whining and the arguing, the constant noise that accompanies a family of that size.
“When you’ve got nine kids, you’ve got a little bit of everything,” she said. “You’ve got the baby you can cuddle with; the little ones you can chase around; the teenagers you have to help through all the rough times or tell them to suck it up. You’ve got somebody to pick on and a sister your age to talk to about boy problems; you’ve got a brother to smack upside the head.
“You’ve got something of everything. You’re complete.”