Almost every youngster who picks up a golf club has stars in their eyes, and is convinced that they’ll be able to emulate their heroes on television by making a glitzy career for themselves playing the sport they love.
But, as the years tick by, the realization of how difficult this is to do becomes clearer. And arguably the demographic which best highlights how challenging it is to make the step up to the paid ranks are those who beaver away one rung below on the ladder: top amateurs.
It’s always fascinating to speak to coaches, former players and rivals of Tour pros, and to hear how often they express surprise that some guys have “made it”, while other guys with bags more talent when they were growing up simply couldn’t. The kind of guys who smashed every record in sight at amateur level, but, when it came to doing it for a living, simply couldn’t cut the mustard. And, to rub it in, they had to watch as grinders, and ostensible no-hopers, flew past them to make a success out of life as a pro.
So, what is the difference between the guys who cut it as pros, and the rest who must settle for simply being great amateurs with a day job?
It’s one thing to hit the range after work, and play at the weekend. But practicing, conditioning, gym work, short game drills… it’s a full-time job, which requires relentless, unwavering commitment. Not everyone has it in their locker to stick to, and, most importantly, enjoy such a monotonous routine. For some guys, staying with that desk job at the bank can suddenly seem more preferable.
Finding a way in
In the absence of sponsors’ exemptions, one of the biggest shocks to the system when you turn pro is finding out just how hard it is to earn that first pay cheque. Never mind making the cut – you’ll have to pre-qualify just to make it into most events. And to get to that point, you have to pay your dues on challenge tours and mini tours. It’s a hard road to the top, and many top amateurs simply don’t have the stomach for it.
Playing for your bread
One of the biggest mental barriers is getting to grips with the realities of playing for your livelihood. It’s one thing trying to hole clutch putts at amateur event. It’s quite another when your weekly wage depends on it. And when you’re out of form, there’s no backstop of a steady income (unless it comes from sponsors). That kind of pressure has broken many a man or woman before, and will continue to keep amateurs from taking the plunge.
It’s loosely tied to the point above, but concentration, self-belief and an innate ability to thrive when the pressure is on is a cocktail that is the preserve of a precious few. And even then, keeping that up is an ongoing battle. No wonder sports psychologists and gurus are so widely employed on the Tour. Unlike almost any other sport, golf involves hitting a still ball. That means instinct plays almost no role in the equation, and the power of the mind is the key determinant of success instead. When the chips are down, or when a pressure-filled moment requires a big shot, it’s those with the clearest minds who deliver. They’re called pros.
Seeing new places, staying in nice hotels, becoming a jetsetter. It all sounds like fun on paper. But in reality, the unstinting travel required wears many a player down, as does constantly having to adapt to new surroundings, conditions and golf courses. Being able to enjoy this side of the job is part and parcel of being a pro. Unfortunately, not everyone does.
A step up in quality
Of course, there is one final piece of the puzzle: how good you are. Talent isn’t everything, but it certainly helps. From a ball-striking perspective, there isn’t a lot in it between a good pro and a top amateur when both parties hit their Sunday bests. It’s the bad shots where you really notice the difference. The variance in outcomes between best and worst is simply much smaller, and a pro is able to establish greater consistency towards the top end of the scale. And that isn’t just with the long game – the same is true of pitching, chipping and putting. Consistently carving out good scores when not at your best is fundamental to getting the job done as a pro, and is perhaps the biggest disparity of all when compared with ammies.
Ultimately there is no empirical formula to determine who can make it as a pro, and who will be consigned to settling for life as a successful amateur. And there are plenty of exceptions (and other criteria) when it comes to assessing differences between the two. The point is that, while the gap may seem minimal on the surface, there’s actually a whole lot of real estate between top amateurs and pros when you dig a little deeper. And it’s a divide that only a select few will ever bridge.