Mini-tour expansion in Orlando area faces hurdles

Golfers tee off during a Space Coast Tour event at Reunion Resort.

The second coming of the Space Coast Pro Tour began with a bang. On Oct. 21, guests at Reunion Resort were awakened just before 8 a.m. – whether they liked it or not – as a bugler performed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” For a brief interlude, mini-tour pros warming up on the range stopped hitting balls, lifted their caps and mumbled the words. This patriotic gesture was followed by a 21-gun salute by the Kissimmee, Fla.-based chapter of Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Jeffrey Bernstein, a former mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer and the tour’s founder and president, pulled out all the stops to trumpet opening day. As for a rousing turnout? Not even the carrot of a $5,000 first-place check – a nice payday in the mini-tour world – could attract a full field.

“If we don’t have enough golfers,” Bernstein said, “point those guns at me because I’m done.”

His joke drew laughter, but his concern was real. The Space Coast tour, once synonymous with Florida mini-tours in the 1970s and ’80s, isn’t the only new kid on the block. The established eGolf Professional Tour launched a winter series in Orlando a week later and plans to go head-to-head with the NGA Tour (formerly the NGA Hooters Tour), whose popular winter series celebrates its 11th season. Orlando long has been a major hub of professional golf during the winter months, but never quite like this. If you count the West Florida Golf Tour, which has two events in the region, then seven mini-tours will call Orlando home between October and April. Which begs the question: Are there enough hungry mini-tour players to go around?

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John Crouse keeps the eGolf Tour's makeshift leaderboard updated during the Lee Westwood Golf School Open.

“Of course not,” said Frank Magee, who presides over the central Florida-based Moonlight Tour and estimated that mini-tour participation is half what it was in 2007.

Magee and other mini-tour operators expect this season to play out as golf’s version of survival of the fittest, and there surely will be blood. Which is why you won’t find a moment much richer in irony than when the VFW’s bugler sounded taps.

Bernstein, however, is cautiously optimistic. He had poured his heart and soul – and money – into making this day a reality. For months, he traveled the country to promote the tour’s rebirth.

“I’ve talked to so many golfers 40-and-older who’ve said, ‘The Space Coast Tour is where I got my start,’ ” Bernstein said. “But when I talk to a 22-year-old recent college grad, he doesn’t know the Space Coast Tour from the shuttle.”

The late J.C. Goosie, a fine player in his own right, founded the original Space Coast Tour in Orlando in 1973. In the days before a secondary tour existed, Goosie earned the moniker “Father of the mini-tours,” attracting everyone from can’t-miss-kids to longshot dreamers.

For 25 years, Goosie’s Space Coast Tour produced countless PGA Tour golfers, including major winners Paul Azinger, Mark Calcavecchia, Mark O’Meara and Craig Stadler. Doug Dunakey, 50, is old enough to have competed on the original Space Coast Tour and remembered his baptism by fire playing the circuit fresh out of college. “You thought you were the big fish in the pond and then you come to find there’s another 80 guys just like you trying to do the same thing,” he said.

Dunakey wasn’t the only one in attendance at the relaunch reminiscing in the soft focus of nostalgia’s glow. PGA professional Mike Bender, who teaches several Tour pros including Zach Johnson, was a Space Coast Tour regular in the 1980s and remembered more than one occasion when players – himself included – were broke and Goosie backed them.

“He did it once for Mike Hulbert, and he won three of the five events,” Bender said of the three-time Tour winner. “That kept him going. If J.C. wouldn’t have done that, I don’t know if Mike would have ever made it.”

In Bender’s day, Dick Mast, Walt Zembriski and Larry Mowry were the kings of the Space Coast Tour. It was so popular that there were wait lists for the 168-man fields, and business so good that Goosie used to boast, “I’m the leading money winner out here every week.”

Goosie’s crack attests to the fact that mini-tour players aren’t getting rich. Those who profit on the lower tours do so at the expense of hundreds of young players, many of whom run out of money before fulfilling their potential.

“The mini-tours are about getting better and making your dollars last,” said Chris Bartolacci, a former mini-tour player and tournament director of the 3-year-old West Florida Golf Tour.

In 2011, his partner, Carl Wakely, determined the average age of Q-School graduates was 31. That means a new college alumnus needs to make his money last for roughly 10 years.

“Don’t waste your money on these road-to-nowhere events,” Bartolacci preached.

Last year, the PGA Tour dipped its toe into developmental golf by operating PGA Tour Canada, a nine-event summer series, and PGA Tour Latinoamerica, a 14-event series split between March-May and October-December. By offering Web.com Tour cards to their top 5 finishers on the seasonlong money lists, the Tour has established these circuits as the preferred pathway to the big leagues. Not surprisingly, NGA Tour participation dropped this year, including the smallest Pro Series field in years (111) in Louisiana in July.

What’s missing from the PGA Tour’s model is a U.S.-based feeder to the Web.com Tour. The NGA and eGolf tours would like to fill that role, but the PGA Tour says it’s not interested in expanding, despite recently announcing PGA Tour China for 2014. Nor is it likely to dole out Q-School exemptions, which are high on mini-tour players’ wish lists.

“If we went down that road,” said Andy Pazder, the Tour’s executive vice president of tournament operations, “there would be a line around the corner. Where do we draw the line?”

He added, “We think the system as it is works fine.”

But does it? Bernstein conceived the Space Coast Tour revival as a no-membership, low-budget alternative, with a $420 entry fee for 36-hole, no-cut events. Magee, who has run the Moonlight Tour with his wife since 1992, played five Space Coast Tour events in 1978 and says he wants it to succeed. But Magee has watched “nearly 50” mini-tours go bust since he entered the business, and he sees the Space Coast Tour making critical mistakes. Magee questioned the decision to cram 44 events between October and April before establishing a clientele, a concern Bernstein conceded “either is going to work in our favor or be a disaster for us.” As for the $5,000 first-prize guarantee, Magee called it a death wish.

“If they don’t get the players, the temptation is to cancel, which would be the first nail in the coffin,” Magee said. “Yet if they make good on the guarantee, then everyone else gets hosed.”

Only 24 players competed in the first event at Reunion, but Bernstein paid the winner, Evan Harmeling, the promised $5,000; second received $600. Bernstein wasn’t disheartened by the small turnout.

“A lot of players are laying in the weeds to see how we do,” Bernstein said.

Christopher Ross, a 26-year-old Canadian pro, lives at Reunion, but was among those taking a wait-and-see approach. Many players remain skeptical, having been hoodwinked before. Many live paycheck-to-paycheck. Finding financial backing is never easy. Ross suffered a setback when his sponsor recently died. As a last resort, Ross found backing from members at Hamilton Golf Club, his home club in Ontario. He has a wife and 2-year-old daughter, and can’t afford to take chances. At the advice of a veteran player, Ross crunched the numbers – membership and entry fees vs. payouts – and decided to play the NGA Tour and Fore The Players Golf Tour this winter.

“You don’t realize you’re only playing for 60 percent of the purse money in some of these events,” Ross said. “I’m here to win, but the reality is, you don’t win every week.”

Mini-tour golf is a simple numbers game. Tournament operators, most of whom charge a membership fee and collect entry fees, take a small percentage and let the pros play for the rest. More options make for smaller fields and therefore smaller purses. On Oct. 29, fields were split among the Space Coast (10), Moonlight (21), NGA (22), eGolf (34), West Florida (78) and PGA Tour Latinoamerica (137). The landscape becomes more crowded as Fore The Players and Florida Professional Golf Tour begin their seasons. The tail end of October and the first half of November is typically a slow period for developmental golf because Q-School takes priority. But if the field sizes so far are any indication of what lies ahead, the players are going to be competing for purses that could be half the size.

“That’s the saddest part,” said Robin Waters, the NGA Tour’s president.

Exhibit A was the NGA Tour’s three-day event at Stoneybrook East Golf Club, which offered a guaranteed first-place check of $12,500. It would have been $15,000, but the field was far fewer than 100. A 22-man field meant a total purse of $14,960 based on entry fees, which didn’t leave much to pay the remaining players making the cut. (The 22-man field would be cut to the top 7 and ties after 36 holes of the 54-hole event.) So before the event, the NGA proposed altering the purse distribution. The contestants unanimously voted to reduce the guaranteed first-place check to $7,000 so that eight players would get paid.

At the second Space Coast event, Bernstein faced a similar scenario when only three players competed in the Open Division. So much for his $5,000 first-place guarantee. Instead, Max Moot earned $900.

“We modified the payout because frankly, even if you’re Donald Trump, you’re going to have problems,” Bernstein said.

In short order, the Space Coast Tour unveiled a new purse distribution: a guaranteed first-place check of $5,000 requires a field of 49 or more. Nothing creates uncertainty for players more than purse changes. And it made one observer wonder about Bernstein’s declaration that he’s in it for the long haul.

“If we’re still around March 3, I want you to perform your show,” Bernstein said to Mike Calbot, a renowned trick-shot artist, at the Space Coast’s debut.

Bernstein’s remark – If we’re still around – struck an ominous tone. It served as a stark reminder that in the world of mini-tour golf, it’s often here today, gone tomorrow.

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