How can it be over six years since I wrote this; impossible! Still, reading it again reminds me of writing it and makes me want to drop AVL to see how he’s doing.
In 1996 Tiger Woods said, “Hello world,” and things haven’t been the same since. Before Woods ever put a tee into the ground as a professional he’d been made a multimillionaire by Nike and Titleist. For the first time, far more of a player’s income was going to come from sponsorships than tournament winnings. A new world order had arrived and golf almost instantly expanded into a truly global game.
Since then, we’ve said hello to a bunch of mini-Tigers like Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Ryo Ishikawa. What each of these players have in common (along with a lot of game) is a massive corporate support mechanism. Each is as much a brand as a player. Fowler actively cultivates his image and look on his website by asking, “Love my look?” His Cowboy-orange and flat-billed cap are tools helping to set himself apart from the rest of the khaki-clad PGA Tour crowd. And, while it would be easy (if a tad cynical) to say most great players have yet to set themselves apart by winning,
I don’t want to create the impression I don’t like this crop of young, corporately well-connected, players because for the most part I do. It’s just that I also enjoy following the kind of player who lacks such deep-pocketed support. It’s important to understand how many players come to professional golf in anonymity and with significant hardship.
It’s well known Ben Hogan failed on the PGA tour at least once before finally breaking through. Before succeeding, he was down to his last bit of cash, $86 from a war chest of $1400. He had promised his wife Valerie (who was driving with him from event to event) that if he didn’t earn a check in the next tournament they would take what little money they had left and make their way home to Fort Worth, Texas. The morning before the tournament, the Hogans awoke to find their Buick stripped of its rear tires and wheels, its rear axle propped up on rocks.
Hogan got a ride to the tournament and ended up winning $385. Hogan described that check as the biggest one he had ever seen and he was quite sure it was the biggest he would ever see in his entire life. It’s impossible to imagine that Hogan sponsored by Nike, given millions of dollars before he had ever put a tee into the ground in a professional event. Hogan is a reminder that for every Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler there are thousands of aspiring players who come up another way; a much harder way.
Jim Von Lossow came to professional golf in a way much closer to that of Hogan than of Fowler or Woods. Jim’s an old friend of mine and some years back he told me of his time on the PGA Tour. He was only 20 when he left Seattle for California and his parents had no love for the idea of playing professional golf. Jim’s quest to play on tour was one he faced largely on his own. He ended up on tour for a few years and even played alongside some storied players like Tom Kite and Jack Fleck. Though Jim didn’t make many headlines while on tour, his journey led him to become a PGA instructor, the first putter manufacturer to mill heads from 303 stainless steel and now one of the most respected club fitters in the country.
It’s no surprise that Jim and his wife, Susan, have two children who grew up excelling at golf; their daughter, Hannah, and son, Andrew. When it came to Andrew, Jim hadn’t realized how good he’d gotten until Andrew and his friend, Eric Benjamin, shot back to back rounds in the low 60s. This got Jim thinking and he and Susan decided to stake Andrew and Benji enough cash to cover a summer playing The Dakotas Tour. “When I was coming up, I didn’t have the support of my parents when it came to golf,” Jim told me. “So, it was important to me that my wife and I give Andrew and Benji whatever help we could.”
Toward the end of July, Andrew and Benji loaded Andrew’s 1997 Toyota Camry and headed east toward Bozeman, Montana. Bozeman would serve as the duo’s home base for their summer on The Dakotas Tour since Benji knew some folks there. Andrew & Benji missed the first eight events of the 2010 Dakotas Tour season. These tournaments were played in cities with names like Okoboji, Iowa. Obscurity is common in professional golf. A serious golf fan might be able to name 50 PGA Tour players but there are 125 exempt spots. Add the players on the Nationwide Tour, the Canadian Tour and all the myriad other mini tours and we’re talking about serious obscurity. Galleries consist of friends and family, but more likely no one at all. Testing one’s game on a tour like the Dakotas was a strong reminder that golf can be a very solitary game, especially for aspiring professionals like Andrew & Benji.
Still, this is a duo that’s pretty comfortable with obscurity. They’ve even created their own organization to promote it; The Northwest Obscure Golf Association. Andrew & Benji came up with the name when they were forced to admit that to play as much as they needed to play to sharpen their games they’d have to play on some of the area’s scruffier courses. So, for two months of summer in 2010, Andrew & Benji tested their games against other aspiring professionals. They played some golf, they drove a lot of miles and had a lot of fun. At the end of the summer, they both agreed it had been the best one ever.
After arriving in Bozeman, Andrew & Benji drove about 700 miles for a one day Pro-Am at Wild Oak GC in Mitchell, South Dakota. For the next few weeks, Andrew & Benji teed it up twice in Yankton, South Dakota at Fox run and then at the open qualifier at Hillcrest Country Club.
Which open? The Bobcat State Open at Fargo Country Club, of course. Notably, the state animal of South Dakota is the coyote, so go figure. Jim Von Lossow had told me what good players his son Andrew and daughter had become, but it was Andrew’s humble blogging that drove home just what fine players he and Benji are and at the same time what a difficult undertaking they were attempting.
Andrew’s first blog entry:
Benji and I played a practice round at Fargo Country Club. It was a nice day, around 80 degrees with a slight breeze. The forecast for tomorrow is calling for wind and sun. I tee off at 8:20am while Benji tees off at 1:20pm.
The greens are very firm and fast. The key to approach shots is staying below the hole and taking one club less for the ball to run up to the pin. This is a very Northwest-style golf course so Benji and I feel comfortable playing here.
Here are a couple pics from today at the Fargo Country Club…
To the casual reader, I’m sure these photos simply look like two really good players teeing off. But, when I look at them I’m trying to imagine if Andrew & Benji felt differently when they put the tee in the ground. They were doing what they had done thousands of times before, but they were doing it for a very different reason. Their ability, their pure joy in playing the game and their newfound drive to play golf for a living, had taken Andrew & Benji to this very unusual place.
I once watched Nick Price in one of his first tournaments on the Champion’s Tour. I had sought him out before he teed off to tell him how much I enjoyed his book, The Swing, which had come out a few years earlier. Nick Price was as kind and gracious a man as his reputation would suggest. There were a few people who watched him tee off, but by the 3rd hole his gallery had all but vanished. It was a perfect, glorious day in Southern California and one of the best players in the game was playing a competitive round of golf in almost total solitude.
That was an odd event. It was the first day of a tournament that had been moved from one course to another and attendance would be light until the weekend. But, that day reminded me what a lonely and isolating game professional golf can be. As I walked with Price I marveled at his rapid-fire swing and the dead-solid sound the ball made when he struck it with an iron, and I felt a little sorry for him. I know…Price wasn’t really alone, and was certainly not lonely. Still, live professional golf very often doesn’t always bear as much similarity to the game we see on television as we might expect.
Andrew & Benji were taking their first steps toward becoming a colleague of Nick Price but I’m sure they didn’t see it that way. They were and are good friends who wanted most of all to have their best summer ever. While they were at it, they would measure their games against each other and against the games of the other players with the same mission.
They both knew it wouldn’t be easy:
Day 1 of the Bobcat North Dakota State Open:
Benji and I both shot 75. I played in the morning and made the turn at 3 over and shot even on the back.
For Benji’s round in the afternoon the wind picked up and baked out the greens. He hit a flagstick from 190 yards and the ball then went into the water in the greenside hazard. In the last 3 tournaments, Benji has at least hit one flag per tourney. His round also lasted 6.5 hours.
Benji shot 70. He played solid but just had one bad hole. He was punching out from the trees when his ball caught the trunk of a tree sending it into the hazard. Benji missed the cut by 2.
For myself, I shot 81. Made the turn at 3 over again and knew I had to make some moves if I wanted any chance of making the cut. Instead the round went the other way.
We are leaving North Dakota today and heading to Milbank, South Dakota. We will drive three hours and play a practice round at Pine Hills Golf Club for a one-day Pro Am tomorrow, August 30th.
We are looking forward to playing a new course and teeing it up in another tournament.
For 7,000 miles, Andrew & Benji chased the little white ball across the Dakotas and into Montana, going all the way east to Iowa for the Tour Championship. They were like the golf equivalents of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, hopping from town to town, staying at KOA campgrounds. Playing golf was the reason for their trip but I will bet it was the trip itself they’ll remember most keenly. As another Cervantes once wrote, “The Journey is better than the inn.” In an era when people are brought together over vast distance by technology, it’s even more important to venture into the expanse from time to time. I’m sure Andrew & Benji would agree.
I wondered a lot about Andrew & Benji and their dream of playing golf for a living. In fact, when I started working on this story, I wasn’t even sure they really wanted to play the game for a living. So, I talked to Andrew about it.
Today, Andrew Von Lossow’s day job is studying Design at Eastern Washington University where he’s on schedule to graduate in 2013. He told me about the reaction of his fellow students when he tells that in his spare time he’s a professional golfer. Not surprisingly, they don’t quite know what that means. When most people think of the word professional, they think of doctors and lawyers, not golfers.
When asked to describe his game, Andrew said, “My strength is ball striking. I can hit high long irons and from there I have good confidence in my other irons. My chipping and pitching are works in progress. Same with my putting; I am a streaky putter I can really get it going when I am on. When I’m not, it is a lot of two putts and the occasional and dreaded 3 putt.” He’s clearly a guy who believes in his game and has done a lot to develop it from working with a number of teaching pros to enhancing his overall fitness by following a rigorous fitness regimen developed by the Titleist Performance Institute.
As ever, golf is a game of making three shots into two shots any way you can. The different mind set of the truly fine player is revealed when he says, “Once I make one birdie, I feel I can string them together. The more birdies I make, the more unaware of my score I get because I get caught up on the next shot to make the lowest score possible.” Poor players don’t think that way. A couple good holes is more likely to make them protective than confident. Andrew clearly has the confidence to go low when the opportunity comes his way, as he did by finishing 5th and winning $800 in the Gallatin Valley Open.
He wrote about the event and the end of his first pro tour:
What a journey it was out in the Dakotas. Benji and I both agree that this was the best summer we have ever had. Benji had some great finishes in tournaments while I was enrolled in the school of hard knocks in the tour life. What I learned was very important for becoming a better player. Golf is not easy as we all know.
The last tournament, The Gallatin Valley Open, I came in 5th shooting 72-68. The first day I shot 4-over 40 on the front nine and I took some experience from my previous tournaments and shot 4-under 32 on the back nine. The next day I shot a bogey free 68 to make a move up the leader board to cash my first professional check.
I’ll bet Andrew’s closing 68 felt so easy. At the same time, I’m sure that front nine 40 must have had him doubting that he was cut out to play professional golf. The ability to turn off those doubts and salvage par says a lot about his resiliency. Still, it must be extraordinarily difficult for an aspiring professional to measure his game, until the heat of professional competition gets turned up. Then it becomes easy, if potentially confidence crushing. There are so many good players today. As sure as I am that the best players of eras gone by like Nicklaus, Hogan and Ballesteros would still be amazingly successful players today, I’m equally certain the depth of quality players is greater today than it’s ever been.
No one needs to tell Jim Von Lossow about the difficult challenge that lay ahead for his son. There is surely no way to tell whether Andrew will be able to make a living playing golf. But, that’s not really the point. In golf and in life, outcomes are never assured. All we can do is make our best swing, go find the ball, and do it all again.
Today, Andrew & Benji are continuing to hone their games in preparation for their next trek on tour. They’re sure to have plenty of birdies and their fair share of bogies when they do.
Their best summers ever are just ahead.