Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 25, 2010

This Tour Is All About What’s Possible

The FUTURES Tour, the official developmental golf tour of the LPGA, came to New Hampshire this week for the second of its two annual stops in New England. In business for three decades, the FUTURES Tour has been owned by the LPGA since 2007 which has helped to ensure its ongoing financial viability. Over the years more than 500 players have graduated from the FUTURES to careers on the LPGA Tour, including former world #1 and recently retired Lorena Ochoa, current #1 Cristie Kerr, and Australian superstar Karrie Webb. Each year the top ten FUTURES money winners earn playing cards for the following LPGA season.

Unlike the men’s Nationwide Tour, the FUTURES is almost exclusively a true developmental tour. The Nationwide has a solid mix of young pros just starting out, on their way up from various regional mini-tours, as well as plenty of aging veterans who have spent time on the PGA Tour and are hoping to return to the top level of men’s golf once again. While the FUTURES does have a handful of older veterans who have lost their LPGA playing privileges, the overwhelming majority of players are in their 20’s and a goodly number are teenagers.

The FUTURES is also developmental in that almost no one makes a living playing it. Through sixteen events on the Nationwide Tour the money leader as of last week had earned more than $300,000. That’s admittedly pocket change compared to the nearly $4 million that PGA Tour money leader Ernie Els has earned so far this year; but it is still obviously enough to pay a few bills. In contrast, through twelve FUTURES events coming into this week 19-year old Christine Song topped the money list with $58,000 in earnings. Almost sixty percent of that came from the winner’s purses at her two 2010 victories. Of the 190 women who have cashed a check from a FUTURES event so far this year, only 36 have year-to-date earnings over $10,000.

This golf tour is devoid of courtesy cars and lavish sponsor endorsement packages. Perhaps one player in three has the benefit of a caddie, with the rest either toting their own bag or having it carried along on the back of a golf cart driven by a tournament volunteer. And the few caddies that are hauling bags are not professional loopers. Rather they are boyfriends or partners or, not infrequently, parents. The golf bags themselves are also generally not the heavy leather staff bags typical at a PGA or LPGA event; but mostly light carry bags no different than what one would see on any other Sunday at any local golf course. These mostly young pros play on thanks to the good grace of parents or friends or a group of sponsors at their home club. The FUTURES Tour is aptly named, for these women are playing not so much for today as for a tomorrow that they can only hope will one day dawn.

This week’s event was The International at Concord, played over three days at Beaver Meadow Golf Course. Beaver Meadow is owned and operated by the city of Concord. But before any private country club purists start to sneer, be assured that the Meadow is decidedly not your typical over-utilized and under-maintained municipal golf course. It’s New Hampshire’s oldest links, with a relatively open and flat front nine followed by a hilly, tree-lined and especially challenging back side. Despite a too-wet spring followed by an overly dry summer, the course was in generally good condition, set up for The International at 6,300 yards with a par of 72.

The leader after 36 holes was 17-year old Jenny Shin of Torrance, California. Shin’s two-day total of -8 put her one stroke ahead of four other players. In all there were ten women within three shots of the lead at the start of the final round. Things quickly got even tighter when Shin double-bogeyed the fourth hole.

After wandering the course for a bit, a friend for nearly four decades and I settled in next to the green of the uphill par-3 17th hole. While the players had access to officials walking with each group who knew the current leaderboard, the handful of fans spread out over the north Concord acreage weren’t so lucky. Looking down the hill past the 17th tee, we had a view of one of just two leaderboards erected on the course. Unfortunately, it was a view of the solid green back of that board. Finally the last half-dozen or so groups began to come through. With the players who began the day closest to the lead, they at least had volunteers carrying signs with the scores relative to par for the players in each threesome.

As these groups played the 17th it became apparent that in the freshening afternoon winds Beaver Meadow was playing tough. None of Shin’s closest pursuers was going low. Twice we heard applause from out on the back nine, and when at last the final threesome arrived at the 17th tee, we could see that the applause had been for the overnight leader. Birdie putts at the 14th and 16th holes had moved Jenny Shin to 10 under par.

A tee shot safely up the hill to the front of the green led to a two-putt par, and we prepared to follow the final group up the 18th hole knowing that Shin’s score was at least two shots better than anyone else we had seen.

Beaver Meadow’s last is a birdie hole, a short par four where an optimal drive will fly over the crest of a fairway hill and settle on a plateau giving a clear view and short wedge shot into the green. All three young women in the final group hit perfect drives onto the plateau. But as my friend and I walked up over the crest of the final hill we could see both the 18th green and that second leaderboard adjacent to it. Surprise! There were in fact two players at ten under par. Tiffany Joh, a 23-year old from San Diego who had started the day in a tie for 17th place and who was in the fourth group to tee off in the morning, had fired the best round of the tournament, a 7 under score of 65.

But with the twin red “10’s” on the leaderboard staring her in the face, the teenaged Shin responded like a seasoned pro. Her wedge from 85 yards landed softly and stopped six feet left of the cup. Her turn to putt came with the entire attendance of perhaps 150 fans ringing the green. After one, two, three practice strokes, she stepped over her ball and calmly poured it into the hole for the winning birdie. A fist pump worthy of Paula or Cristie preceded a hug with her caddie mother, all to sustained applause.

The win, and the accompanying $15,400 check, catapulted Shin from 19th place on the FUTURES money list all the way up to 7th. So with just four events left, she is now inside the top ten, with this Tour’s ultimate prize within her reach.

A year or three or ten from now, will we be cheering Jenny Shin at LPGA events? The harsh reality is of course that such an outcome is unlikely. But the undeniable truth is that it is also not impossible. Which of course is what this golf tour is all about. Just ask Karrie Webb. Or Lorena Ochoa. Or Cristie Kerr. On a fine summer Sunday in Concord, New Hampshire, if one squinted just a little, one could almost glimpse the future.

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