Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 26, 2012

Chasing The Dream At Beaver Meadow

They have been playing golf in the northern end of New Hampshire’s capital city for well over a century, ever since a group of local citizens paid Scottish pro Willie Campbell the princely sum of fifty dollars to take the train north from his job as the inaugural professional at The Country Club in Brookline Massachusetts and lay out a nine hole private course. In 1930 the club members relocated to land on the other side of the Merrimack River, and Concord’s city fathers simply took over the property. Four decades later, under the hand of renowned course designer Geoffrey Cornish, a second nine was added to what was by then known as Beaver Meadow Golf Course.

While the local muni generally occupies the lowest rung on the ladder of golf course quality, Beaver Meadow manages to rise above its pedigree. Despite heavy play the course is well maintained, and a relatively flat and open front side leads to a hilly, tree-lined, and challenging inward nine. Still, as a daily fee municipal course the Beav sees more than its share of duffers and hackers. But for one week each year the course takes on a more elite role as it plays host to a group of determined professionals. Last week for the ninth consecutive year the young women of the LPGA’s developmental Symetra Tour came to New England chasing small checks and big dreams.

The economic gap between the men’s and women’s tours has always been substantial, and became even larger in recent years as the LPGA was affected far more adversely by the recession. While Commissioner Michael Whan’s ongoing efforts to rebuild his Tour continue to yield slow but steady progress, LPGA events still seldom make it off the Golf Channel onto network television. Throughout the season women play many fewer tournaments for much smaller purses than do men. With three victories in 2012, Tiger Woods leads the PGA Tour’s money list with almost $4.7 million in earnings, one of three men who have already topped the $4 million mark. In contrast Ai Miyazato, who has two wins and two second place finishes in thirteen events, is the top earner on the LGPA with a bit less than $1.1 million. She and world #1 Yani Tseng are the only two women with more than $1 million in 2012 winnings; while sixty-six PGA Tour members have already won at least $1 million this year.

Still a million dollars isn’t bad for half a year’s work, and fifty-seven women have earned more than $100,000 at the season’s midpoint. But move down a notch to the developmental tours and while the same wide differences hold true, since the prize money is far less the numbers for the women are stark. The top earner on the men’s Buy.com Tour has won just under a quarter of a million dollars in 2012. On the Symetra Tour money leader Esther Choe has just $43,000 in winnings. Even that meager number is deceiving, as Choe has two wins and a runner-up finish and a wide lead in the money race. Move down just two spots on the list, and third place Nicole Smith has earned barely more than half of Choe’s number at just over $23,000.

At Beaver Meadow, in the Northeast Delta Dental International 144 Symetra Tour members teed off last Friday in hopes of winning a piece of a $100,000 purse. The winner’s share was $15,000, and only those who finished in the top-25 were assured of receiving a check in an amount that required a comma. As is always the case at professional tournaments, those golfers who failed to make the cut after two rounds earned nothing at all.

All of the little tour’s members are living a nomadic life, traveling from one event to the next. Most are young, usually just out of college, where as a member of a varsity golf team their travel arrangements were taken care of by a head coach, their lodging and meals paid from the athletic department budget. Now they are forced to fend for themselves, and are likely to quickly find that even with free housing at many stops provided by local families willing to open spare bedrooms, life on the road can be expensive. In short, no one joins the Symetra Tour for the money; even the winners are unlikely to break even by the time all of their travel expenses have been tallied. It is a career choice that will last only as long as the generosity and patience of sponsors holds out, be they family, friends, or a group of members from a young woman’s home country club willing to make a high risk investment in a golfer’s future.

This tour’s members aren’t trying to make a living; they’re trying to earn the opportunity to do so. Every woman who walked Beaver Meadow’s fairways last week dreams of one day playing on the LPGA Tour. At the end of every Symetra Tour season, the top ten golfers on the money list earn membership on the premier women’s professional golf tour for the following year. While the money and prestige associated with the LPGA may fall well short of that tied to the men of the PGA Tour, it is light years ahead of what was up for grabs at the old muni in Concord.

That is the dream driving players like Taylor Collins. The 23-year old was a standout at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. Just over a year ago she set a NCAA Division II National Championship scoring record with a 10-under par 278 while leading the Sharks to a third consecutive national title. Now she’s a rookie on the Symetra Tour, with her own website at www.taylorcollinsgolf.com and just over $6,000 in earnings after playing in seven events. On Saturday afternoon at Beaver Meadow, after signing for a second straight round of 76 that would eventually leave her three shots over the cut line, Collins was back out on the course, hunting down her friend Joanna Coe who was playing the tournament’s second round in the afternoon wave. Like Collins, Coe is a Division II college star turned Symetra tour rookie. She was the individual winner at the 2008 National Championship, where she led Rollins College to the last title won by a school other than Nova Southeastern. So far in her first season as a professional Coe has made four cuts and earned $2,800.

Beaver Meadow’s 4th hole is a par-5 that turns sharply left, with high grass and scattered trees guarding the dogleg. Trying to get as close to the green as possible with her second shot, Coe cut too much off the corner and her ball landed in the dense fescue. Walking ahead of the threesome on the course with a handful of other spectators, Collins crossed the fairway to help find her friend’s ball. Then Coe’s third caught an overhanging limb and fell short of the green. But just when it looked like she was about to record a big number, Coe heard shouts of encouragement from Collins. Steadying herself, she lobbed a delicate wedge over a bunker and onto the green five feet from the hole, then sank the putt to save par as her friend cheered.

In the end neither the par nor her friend’s encouragement were enough and like Collins, Coe wound up on the wrong side of the cut line. Neither of the two young women left Concord with a paycheck. In a year or two, perhaps both will have been forced to abandon their shared dream and find work as club pros, or even in an entirely different field. Yet even while that possibility exists, as Collins and Coe and the other Symetra Tour players moved on to Albany, and Syracuse, and the rest of the 2012 schedule, they did so knowing that one strong tournament can vault a player up the money list and bring the LPGA Tour within reach. They also know that stars like Karrie Webb and Christie Kerr got their start on this tour and in tournaments just like the one at Beaver Meadow; and that a 21-year old Lorena Ochoa topped the Symetra Tour’s money list in 2002. Less than five years later, Ochoa was the #1 woman golfer in the world. For Taylor Collins and Joanna Coe and the rest, reality may one day intrude; but for now their dreams are very much alive.

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