The Journey: Life as a Professional Athlete

“There is no security.”

That is what life as a professional athlete is.

Though most of our time and attention is placed on the top echelon of athletes in each sport, there is a whole number of professional athletes that aren’t playing in the Majors or on the Tour. The vast majority of professional athletes are journeymen pursuing their dreams and goals. Their lives are much less glamorous than the athletes who garner much of sports press. Yet just as fascinating, full of more risk and more hope. These are the athletes being most affected by the COVID-19 shut down.

Tom Whitney is one of those athletes. Whitney was the #1 golfer at the Air Force Academy from his freshman year on. He won conference level awards and Academy awards. By the time he was a senior, he was ranked in the top 25 in the nation in Division I and his career goals had shifted from military service to golf.

In golf, only the top 5.9 percent of high school golfers ever earn a roster spot on a Division 1 team. Of those only 1.8 percent will go Division I. But Whitney was good enough to do that and good enough to play at the next level. Most college golfers who are ranked in the top 25 go on to play professionally. According to Whitney, most of those he competes and practices with now played college golf at his level.

“If you’re good at the collegiate level, your most likely pursuing the professional level, or at least giving it a shot,” Whitney said.

In 2010, after graduating from the Academy he turned pro. But as every Military Academy grad, he owed 5 years of service. The Academy’s have battled with the issue of what to do with potential professional athletes. In 2017, the DoD refused to rescind athletes obligations to play professional sports. But President Trump reversed that policy in 2019 to allow those who got drafted to play.

“Air Force isn’t able to recruit top talent,” Whitney said. Most of the top high school golfers are already planning for professional aspirations and committing 5 years to your military service will discourage most.

Even Trump’s exceptions are mainly at the football level. The Academies do offer a program for Olympic athletes to train. But golf isn’t like football in the amount of press it garners nor is it a quad sport. So from 2010-2014, Whitney played professional golf around his Air Force duties.

“I turned pro when I graduated,” Whitney said. “But that looked like me playing one to two professional tournaments a year. Essentially I was able to practice a descent amount. After looking back, I tell people that my skill level stayed the same as when I graduated (from the Air Force Academy), so I didn’t lose anything, I didn’t gain anything. So when I punched out of the Air Force it kinda felt like I had just graduated.”

In 2014, he was released from his obligations early for reason that had nothing to do with golf. It was then that he launched his professional golfing career.

In baseball, there are the Major leagues and the Minor leagues. Almost all draftees in baseball spend some time in the Minor league system before they get their call up to the Majors. In basketball, budding professionals play in the G-League to prepare or earn a roster spot in the NBA.

Golf is even more intensive than that. There are a myriad of tours to play on. From local tours like the Outlaw Tour that only plays in the state of Arizona to the Asian Tour with tournaments in Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand. All of these professional golfers are trying to make their way onto the PGA Tour. But no one takes the same roads to get there.

When Whitney turned his career goals to professional golf in 2014 he had options. He began on mini tours and with a great year in 2015 went to the Latin America tour in 2016. He earned his spot on the Tour (now the Korn Ferry Tour) of which he played for two seasons. He dropped down to the Latin America tour again in 2019 where he finished 2nd in the money list and earned exemptions on the Korn Ferry Tour.

If this doesn’t sound like the regular career trajectory of most of America, that’s because it’s not. Once a player has made the Latin America tour they must stay in the top 60 to hold their card. For the Korn Ferry tour you must stay in the top 75 on the money list. There are 125 spots all professional golfers are reaching for that keep them on the PGA tour.

It’s about hope.

“Hope that next year will be as well,” said Whitney’s wife, Jess, about living through the career of a professional athlete.

In 2017, Tom Whitney went “All in” and became the sole breadwinner for his family.

His wife, Jess, also a Air Force Academy grad, resigned her post to raise their 2 children. They moved from their much loved home in Colorado to be around Jess’s family as Whitney spent his first year on the Tour. Tom is gone 26-30 weeks a year pursing his career and the help of family is crucial. They had to adjust to life with a fluctuating income and the pressure to perform. Fortunately Jess Whitney thrives in budgeting, even launching her own budgeting course for moms.

But the road hasn’t been continually up. There have been good seasons of play for Whitney like in 2019 and 2015. But there have been lean times to, like when he lost his spot on the Tour after the 2018 season.

“There is no security,” Whitney said, describing his job security.

In 2018, they welcomed their third child. Their fourth is due in a matter of weeks.

But Whitney isn’t an exception. The Korn Ferry, Asian, Latin America and European Tours are full of individuals like Whitney. There are young guys who left college early to pursue the professional route, but there are also plenty of journeymen older than Whitney who is 31. Whitney called these the “grinders.”

There is a broad range of family life as well, there are young people who are still living with their parents and those like him, who are raising families. The mix between sole breadwinners who are on the professional athletes and those who have spouses who can help cover family costs is as varied as the American public. 13 percent of American married couples live on a single income whereas 7 percent of households are.

“There is actually real world responsibility on me earning money, “Whitney said when they made the decision in 2017 for Jess to stay home. Then both of their Air Force guaranteed pay checks disappeared and what he earned as an athlete mattered.

The Effects of COVID-19 on Professional Athletes

In the course of their marriage, travel has been a constant. But with the world shut down, they have spent the last 6 weeks together. It is a change that many Americans are facing. A life where ones income and livelihood are deemed either essential or not. Along with the 20.5 million other Americans, when a professional athlete is at home, he isn’t making money.

Most are aware of the gobs of money made by Tiger Woods with Nike or Roger Federer. The top earning athletes are making millions of dollars a year. For some, like Lionel Messi, it’s their salary contracts that earn them most of their money. For others, like Federer and Woods, it’s their endorsement deals that garner the most cash.

For the decade of 2010, Tiger Woods was the highest paid golfer, earning $615 million while only playing an average of 10 tournaments a year. Whitney on the Korn Ferry Tour is playing three times as many events.

Of the top paid athletes of 2019, golfers were #11 (Tiger Woods) #19 (Phil Mickelson) and Rory McIlroy (#32). McIlory is the Worlds #1 Golfer and only 20 percent of his total earnings come from where he places on the leader board. McIlroy has earned about $70 million in earnings, including his $15 million for winning the FedEx Cup at the end of 2019. But he’s also worth somewhere around $200 million with his Nike deal alone. McIlroy hasn’t won a Major since 2014. Brooks Koepka who has won 4 Majors in the last 3 years, has made $24.5 million over the course of his career. His career looks a lot more like Tom Whitney’s than Tiger Woods.

Koepka went to Florida State University where he was an All-American for three years. He went pro in 2012 and like Whitney found himself on one of the mini-tours. He started at the Challenge Tour where he won 3 tournaments. In 2013, he earned his spot on the European Tour. Keopka didn’t become a full fledged PGA Card Member until 2014. Three years later, he won the U.S. Open in 2017.

The road of a professional golfer isn’t easy. It’s a road that many within the industry have criticized for being too winding and too difficult as to lose talent early.

“It is a very convoluted process,” Whitney called it.

But Tom Whitney proves you can make it on hope and good play. He isn’t raking in multi-millions a year. His income is made mostly by his earnings. In 2019, when he finished 2nd on the Latin America Tour Money list, he earned $86,860 for his play. On top of winnings, Whitney will earn tee-up money from equipment companies like Titleist. These are contracts signed for a year or multi-year deal. This money is mostly used by Whitney and other professional’s to help with the weekly expenses of the tournament such as paying for hotels, flights, rental cars and caddies. These expenses can vary from $2000-$2500 a week.

Whitney’s whole career is based on playing the game and since March 12th, he has been unable to play the game.

There have been multiple news stories of some of the wealthier athletes paying for the arena staff of their leagues. In baseball, the minor leaguers are being paid a base salary since the season has been put on hold. But no such relief is coming for professional golfers.

Whitney, like the rest of those professional golfers without multi-million dollar endorsement deals, have lost 10 weeks in a 30 week season. For the first 4 of those weeks, Whitney wasn’t even able to make it to a course to play. Though during his years living in Colorado he usually took off a couple of weeks in the winter, staying in professional form has been a challenge. He has been playing money games to “keep me sharp,” he said.

“I’m ready,” Tom Whitney said. He’s ready to return to professional golf not just because he has another child on the way that moves his family to 6 he is providing for, but because this is what he loves to do.

He has “no issues” with the aggressive stance the PGA has taken about getting their sport back and playing. He is generally trusting of the PGA’s decisions with an understanding that there is “a lot of weight on their decision.”

The PGA, along with NASCAR, has been the most aggressive about reopening their sport. The PGA announced April 16th they would resume play June 11th. Since the Korn Ferry Tour is under the umbrella of the PGA Tour they will be back at it that weekend as well at TPC Sawgrass in Point Verde Beach, Florida.

The logistics of launching an event amid the fears of COVID-19 are vast. They have announced that there will be no spectators or families allowed at the events. Regardless, they have to collect 150 players with their 150 caddies as well as the Tour staff and rules officials, the catering companies, the course staff as well as the volunteers. That’s a minimum of 500 people, only 100 of which are locals. That doesn’t even include the airport travel and rental car issues all of the out of towners will need. Private housing used to be a popular options for professional golfers like Whitney. Club members of the host course would put up pros in their guest houses. This helped save money for the professionals who didn’t have their own buses they move around the country with like Jason Day. These private housings will certainly disappear, for at least the short term.

Other affects COVID-19 will have on Whitney’s career are the cancelling of the Pro-Ams. But overall, Whitney isn’t concerned about the future. He has a low worry level when it comes to contracting the virus and doesn’t think it will change the sport in any historical or far reaching affects. The club houses might close, but professional golf will remain.

Professional athlete usually triggers images of lavish lifestyles, mansions with basketball courts and entire rooms dedicated to shoes. But that isn’t what a professional athlete looks like. There are many professional athletes who live lifestyles very similar to the rest of their American neighbors. In suburban homes, sending their kids to the local schools and basketball hoops in the driveway. They make much closer to the average income than the 1 percenters. But their life is full of much more risk and much more pressure. And like the other millions of Americans whose life has been affected by the government shut down and the spread of a virus, their life has been upended.

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