How golf-mad CEO Jim Holtgrieve actually made it onto the Senior PGA Tour -- and why you never will.

IF you're a golfer (to be specific, if you're a male golfer and still have some time available before you turn 50), then you know this moment: You've flushed a four-iron to a tucked pin from 200 yards over water, or you've finessed the perfect sand save from a greenside bunker, or you've just hit your driver on the screws (nice draw, middle of the fairway). And in that moment you say to yourself, "Pro shot."

And then you start thinking, "Maybe ..."

Meaning, maybe if you took the time and really worked at your game, then maybe you could make the Senior PGA Tour once you turn 50. (Fifty being the minimum age for players on the Senior Tour.) After all, you've hit shots just like the ones you see the guys on TV hit -- not as many such shots, granted, and not as often. But still. That's why you'd train. You'd hire the swing doctor, the sports psychologist, the nutritionist. You'd hit buckets of balls every single day. Of course, people would say you couldn't succeed, but that's the sort of talk you're used to. Dedication, perseverance, sacrifice, willpower -- who's got more of that than you? You've built a business, for chrissakes. Golf? Golf is a game.

And anyway, even in your daydreams you're not entirely unrealistic. You don't picture yourself beating someone like Hale Irwin, who's 56. Irwin has won close to $20 million playing golf, and just last summer he was seen smoking players more than 25 years his junior -- Tiger Woods, David Duval -- to take the first-round lead in the U.S. Open.

You don't have to be that good. All you have to do is beat the Ted Goins and John Schroeders and (remember this name) Jim Holtgrieves of the world -- a bunch of guys you've never heard of, who make up the bulk of the Senior Tour. The way you figure it, they're getting paid what must be an obscene sum of money for playing golf, taking home five-figure checks each weekend for playing three rounds on a beautiful course while being pampered at every turn. You'll get a free luxury car to use during the tournament. You'll be handed new clubs and clothes. Heck, you'll even get paid to play a certain brand of golf ball.

Sheesh, where do you sign up?

Well, let us -- and Jim Holtgrieve -- tell you.

Turns out, it's surprisingly easy to take a shot at playing pro golf. While there are elaborate rules governing who is automatically allowed to play in a senior tournament -- based on a complicated formula that takes into account lifetime winnings, current-year earnings, and whether you've won a tournament recently -- there are three ways around all that.

The first one you have probably heard of: the (misnamed) Q-school, or qualifying school. It's not a school at all but a series of elimination tournaments. If you qual- ify for the last one and play well there -- finishing among the top 8 in a field of 140 or so -- you're exempt for a year: you can play every Senior Tour event you want over the next 12 months.

The other two ways are not as well known but actually give you a better chance. One is a sponsor's exemption.

The people putting on a specific tournament can, for any reason, invite four people to join the field. So, here's the chance to put your networking skills to the test. Find someone who knows someone who knows the tournament director and start groveling.

The last way? Simply show up on Monday of the week the event is being played and give it your best shot -- probably your best 68 of them or fewer.

Here's how the Monday qualifier works. Almost all the senior tournaments are "opens," meaning that they'll give up to 72 people a chance to play in the qualifying round. Shoot one of the four best rounds of the day on Monday, and you're in.

"Anyone who declares himself to be a professional and is over 50 is eligible for the Monday qualifier," says Gary Becka, vice-president of administration for the Senior PGA Tour.

Sounds simple enough. You could do that, right?

Well, no.

Stop for a minute and consider your competition at Q-school or the Monday qualifier. Sure, there will be a few people like you. But the majority of the field is made up of true professionals, guys who used to be on the regular PGA Tour or the Senior Tour but who haven't done well enough recently to be exempt.

"There's an awful lot of money out there, and I need it. I don't have any endorsement deals to fall back on."

--Jim Holtgrieve

Collectively, the people scrambling for a spot are known as rabbits, the guys who get just a nibble at "the lettuce," which is what the players call money.

There are two things to know about those rabbits:

They're very, very good.

They're very, very hungry.

Let's introduce to you one of the rabbits, the aforementioned Jim Holtgrieve, who will serve as our guide for what life is like on the Senior Tour. Holtgrieve, according to Senior Tour officials, is the only former small-business CEO who's ever made the tour; he spent some 15 years running a manufacturer's rep business in St. Louis. If, at the end of our whirlwind overview, you're still game -- and think you have the game to eat his lunch on a consistent basis -- then by all means turn pro. (Our money is on Holtgrieve.)

Speaking of money, let's start there. How much could you make?

Well, if you're Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, or Gary Player, quite a lot. If you're Holtgrieve, it's a different matter.

For one thing, you pay your own way: air travel to and from the tournaments, the hotel for the week, the food -- it's all on your tab.

Holtgrieve -- someone who asks the locals where he can get a good meal inexpensively and whose idea of an upscale hotel is a Sheraton -- keeps a profit-and-loss statement for every tournament he plays in. He figures he spends $2,500 to $3,000 a week when he's on the road. (See below for Holtgrieve's P&L for the NFL Golf Classic, a Senior Tour event played last June in Clifton, N.J.)

And before you get paid at all, you have to get a chance to play. Don't qualify on Monday? You're out whatever it cost you to get there. And even if you play, there's no guarantee you'll come out ahead. Finish at the bottom of the pack, and your paycheck can be in the three figures. That may just be enough to pay your caddie, who, in Holtgrieve's case, gets $700 for a tournament plus 7% of whatever Holtgrieve wins. (If he continues on his current pace, which is his best ever, Holtgrieve will net somewhere around $250,000 in 2001 after travel and caddie expenses and before paying taxes. But remember, that "net" doesn't include a health plan or profit sharing or a 401(k) or a company car. Holtgrieve is almost always on the road, yet he'd have made a lot more money staying behind his old desk in St. Louis.)

OK, you say. The overhead is high, but what about the benefits? The free clubs, balls, clothes? All those sponsorship deals and five-figure fees for putting on an exhibition or playing a round with a couple of key corporate clients have to more than make up the difference. The golf is probably a loss leader. The perks have to offset everything else, right?

What perks? the rabbits reply. Holtgrieve, for example, who currently ranks 148th on the all-time Senior Tour money list, has exactly one endorsement deal: $5,000 from Callaway to play its new ball. He gets his golf shirts free -- but no pay for wearing them -- and that's it. No sponsorship. No golf-club deal. Nothing. Look for him out on the tour. He's easy to spot. He's the fella without a golf cap. No one is paying him to wear one.

And this is a guy who shot one under for a tournament played mostly in the rain, this summer's Instinet Classic. You probably paid absolutely no attention to the Instinet, since it was held during the same weekend as the U.S. Open. Despite his impressive score, Holtgrieve finished 14 strokes behind the leader and barely broke even for the week.

Indeed, the closer you look at Holtgrieve's career, the more you realize that you may have underestimated just how hard turning your fantasy into reality may be.

A top amateur in his twenties and into his thirties, Holtgrieve played on three Walker Cup teams, the amateur equivalent of the Ryder Cup squads. He had a winning record in Walker Cup play, which means he went head-to-head against the best amateurs in the world and beat them. But when he was left off the Walker Cup team for what would have been his fourth appearance, he said the heck with it and started devoting himself full-time to his family's manufacturer's rep business in Missouri. Over the next 15 years, Holtgrieve took on more and more senior positions in the company, eventually moving into the top job. During his time there, he tripled the size of the business, growing it to just about $20 million in annual sales.

Golf was just a happy weekend activity. Holtgrieve understands the fantasy most weekend duffers have, but turning pro was not something he had ever really thought about. In fact, he wouldn't have done it if circumstances had been different.

"I'm not proud of this, but I basically went on the tour to get out of town," he says. "My marriage was falling apart. The boys [then 18 and 11] were going to be living with their mother, and the business wasn't going well. This was the chance to get away from the company for a while and get everything straight."

Holtgrieve had planned to give himself a year to get into shape, but the man he hired to replace him as CEO changed his mind right before he was to start. So Holtgrieve had to stay on at the company. He ended up having only three months to prepare for his first event as a pro -- he was offered a sponsor exemption at a local tournament -- but a 13th-place finish convinced him he'd made the right decision.

Today, more than three years later, even his fellow players think he's overdue for a win. So do PGA officials. In fact, the only person who has his doubts is the only person who matters: Holtgrieve.

Holtgrieve concedes that he thinks too much. "There's an awful lot of money out there, and I need it," he says. "I don't have any endorsement deals to fall back on."

And this guy is good. How good? In this year's premier senior tournament -- the U.S. Senior Open -- Holtgrieve outplayed such "names" as Gary McCord, Hubert Green, J.C. Snead, Bob Murphy, Graham Marsh, Miller Barber, and Gary Player. Arnold Palmer and Chi Chi Rodriguez didn't even make the cut.

And if you stack him up against everyone else on the Senior Tour for driving distance, greens hit in regulation, and sand saves, the numbers compiled by the PGA show there is no reason to think he won't win a tournament soon. (See "Have You Got Game?" on page 46.) And this guy's only a rabbit.

As a rabbit he has gone to Q-school each of his three years on the tour, but he hasn't finished better than the top 16, which means he's not guaranteed a slot in any event. He gets in as an alternate in some tournaments -- especially the ones the big-name players -- Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, and others -- turn down.

To increase his chances, he scrambles. He attends the Monday qualifiers. That's how he got into the U.S. Senior Open. He also works hard on gaining sponsor exemptions.

By this point in his career, Holtgrieve has met everyone who runs an event on the Senior Tour. If Holtgrieve hasn't qualified for a tournament, he'll write a letter to the tournament director -- he carries a printer and laptop with him on the road -- asking for an exemption and volunteering to do what needs to be done in return. Need someone to put on a junior clinic? Holtgrieve's your man. Ticket sales a bit slow and someone needs to do a couple dozen local interviews? He's more than willing. One of the companies taking advertising space at the event wants someone to play a round or two with their key clients? Sign Holtgrieve up.

The hard works pays off. "Jim knows what he has to do," says the PGA's Becka. "He treats his amateur partners well. He is great with kids. He'll visit the sponsor tents. The people who put on the tournaments appreciate it."

And so they give him an exemption -- which is another chance at a payday.

This is the guy you're going to be competing against week in and week out. What does Jim Holtgrieve think about your plan of turning pro?

Well, Holtgrieve is a polite man. He says to give it a shot. "Of course, if you're not used to playing extremely competitive golf, you may be surprised," he offers.

Becka is more blunt: "Most of these guys have been playing in tournaments since they were 15. You really don't understand how good they are until you play with them."

But that's the whole point, isn't it?

Paul B. Brown is the author or coauthor of 10 books and editor-in-chief of

Have you got game?
Compare your game with this: Jim Holtgrieve's season stats, through August 1, 2001

Rank on
senior tour
Driving distance 279 yards 8th
Driving-accuracy percentage 64.7% 71st
Greens-in-regulation percentage 64.5% 43rd
Putting average (number of putts per green hit in regulation) 1.805 54th
Eagles (holes per) 198 34th
Birdie average (per round) 3.11 52nd
Scoring average (per round) 72.30 48th
Sand-save percentage 38.4% 75th
Total driving (combination of distance and accuracy) 79 29th
All-around ranking 385 47th
Winnings $258,848 48th
Putts per round 29.80 68th

Source: The PGA Tour.

How a golfer makes money
Jim Holtgrieve's profit-and-loss statement for the NFL Golf Classic, a Senior Tour event played last June in Clifton, N.J.:

Outing (playing with MasterCard reps and customers on Monday) $1,000.00
Pro-Am (game with local businesspeople on Wednesday and Thursday) 975.00
Tournament prize winnings (for finishing 10th) 27,600.00 1
Total revenues $29,575.00

Airfare (coach, 21-day advance purchase with Saturday-night stay and a nondirect flight) $318.62
Car rental (this is one of only a few tournaments for which Holtgrieve got the free use of a car) 0.00
Caddie's share of winnings (7% plus a $700/week guarantee) 2,750.00
Meals for the week 267.90 2
Hotel for the week 1,227.73
Tips 145.00
Miscellaneous 55.00
Tournament entry fee 100.00 3
Total expenses $4,864.25


$24,710.75 4

1This paycheck is well above Holtgrieve's average, which is about $13,000 per event. 2Meal expenses were substantially lower than usual. Holtgrieve toured lots of the sponsors' tents during the week as part of the trade-off for his exemption, and the sponsors fed him. 3Golf is one of the only sports where the participants pay to play. The fee is nonrefundable. 4This net was high. Holtgrieve's average is $8,000 to $9,000 per event.

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