Former collegians test pro ranks at Winter Series
ORLANDO, Fla. – Phillip Choi hops out of his cart and stands on the ninth tee at Orange Tree County Club. It’s so silent, you can hear acorns falling from a nearby tree. A FedEx truck rumbles through the residential area. An elderly man sweeps leaves off his back patio, then looks up so as not to disturb. Pro golf in its simplest form.
Where else could Choi be right now? Maybe on campus in Gainesville, where he could sit in a lecture hall, or play video games in his apartment, or practice with teammates at Mark Bostick Golf Course, the home of the Gators. But now Choi, 20, plays for pay after forgoing his final two seasons at Florida. His dogged pursuit of a pro career has taken him here, to Orange Tree, to the first stop on the Bridgestone Winter Series. For three days’ work, he pocketed nearly $2,000, enough to cover the $1,000 entry fee. So that’s considered progress.
“Man, it’s definitely different,” Choi said outside the clubhouse. “It took a few months, but I’m just now learning how to adapt.”
Choi turned pro after playing the NCAA Championship last June. At the time, he was ranked ninth in the country, but found comfort in the decision because, he said, “being out here, this was a life that I needed to get used to. My goal is to be a professional golfer, so I wanted to get there as fast as possible.”
Four months into his pro career, however, he’s played about 10 events and with limited success. (This week’s seventh-place check, of $1,939, was his most lucrative in six starts on the Hooters circuit.) Being a pro golfer, he’s learned, is as much an attitude as it is a lifestyle. It means packing into his Toyota Sienna with his father, Joseph. It means traveling throughout the Southeast - to Georgia, to North Carolina, to Alabama - trying to earn a paycheck. It means spending hours on the range at Grand Cypress Resort, trying to find a swing that’s repeatable. It means suffering setbacks - such as failing to advance past the first stage of Q-School - and channeling it positively.
“These guys just manage themselves so much better,” Choi said. “I was very arrogant, a typical college player, and I’m starting to get my feet wet out here.”
The same goes for former Iowa standout Vince India, whose post-graduation plans included a move to Bradenton to launch his pro career. In limited starts, his play has been defined mostly by “uncharacteristic, college mistakes,” he said. Mistakes such as making bogeys with wedges, three-putting too often, losing focus. At times, he said, it almost seemed like he wasn’t committed to every shot, that he was being lazy. That certainly was the case during the Nationwide Tour’s Children’s Hospital Classic in Chattanooga, Tenn. Having Monday-qualified into the event, India was in prime position to earn a paycheck before coming apart on the final nine holes in Round 2, eventually missing the cut by three.
Said India: “I need to start thinking like a pro.”
He plans to play the 12-stop Winter Series every other week until Christmas, mixing in a few West Florida Tour events along the way, before diving headlong into the Hooters schedule. He could find a familiar practice-round mate in Connor Arendell, who didn’t return to Central Florida for his senior year but already has acquainted himself quite well to the play-for-pay ranks. With his father, Ron, on the bag for a few events, Arendell was 18th at a Hooters Tour Pro Series event, seventh at an eGolf tournament, then third at another Hooters event, after leading during the second and third rounds. In a few weeks, he’ll play the second stage of PGA Tour Q-School.
“I love it. You’re out here trying to make paychecks now, so it’s a little different,” said Arendell, who tied for 13th at Orange Tree to earn $1,409. “But you can’t really think about it like that. You just have to try to shoot the best numbers you can and hope the money takes care of itself.”
One player with no such problem is Russell Henley, the former Georgia All-American, the U.S. Walker Cupper, the Nationwide Tour winner. During the most stressful time of year for fledgling pros, Henley seems downright peaceful. Well, for good reason: He’s already exempt for 2012 on the Nationwide Tour by virtue of his victory at the Stadion Classic in May.
“It’s just been nonstop golf,” said Henley, who has played three events (two Nationwide, one Winter Series) since turning pro after the Walker Cup. He played at Orange Tree simply for the reps before second stage. “I’m ready to put up the sticks for a while and come back with a fresh mind.”
Choi, alas, doesn’t have that luxury. He expects to play most, if not all, of the Winter Series events to stockpile his cash for next season.
Already thinking like a pro.