That ‘Holy Cow’ moment
The biggest payday isn’t always the most memorable one for TOUR pros, many of whom had their budgets stretched thin before their first meaningful check
January 08, 2019
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
The biggest payday isn’t always the most memorable one for TOUR pros, many of whom had their budgets stretched thin before their first meaningful check
James Hahn had reached a professional crossroads in the summer of 2008. Playing professionally in Canada, he had missed five consecutive cuts, had about $200 to his name and a caddie waiting to be paid.
The situation was so dire that the Californian went back to his hotel room after playing in the Wednesday pro-am prior to his next start in Edmonton and booted up his computer. Hahn called up Craigslist, flipped through his Rolodex and started searching for what he calls another “9-to-5.”
“I had literally just run out of money,” he recalls. “It didn’t seem like it was going my way.”
On Friday, though, the man who once sold women’s shoes at Nordstrom’s during a respite from the game made the cut at the Telus Edmonton Open. That meant he’d get paid that week -- and when he shot 67-69 on the weekend, Hahn moved up into a tie for eighth.
His paycheck? After the currency conversion, about 3,200 hard-earned United States dollars.
“It was one of those paychecks that to me was the difference between pursuing my dream or not pursuing my dream,” Hahn explains. “So, in terms of money-wise, it's not the biggest check that I've cashed, but it is the most meaningful.”
Hahn was able to finish out the 2008 season on what’s now the Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada, then play – and win twice – there the following year. His 2009 earnings covered his entry fee for the PGA TOUR qualifying school where he tied for 34th.
Hahn then spent the next three years on the Web.com Tour, eventually finishing fifth on the money list in 2012 to get his TOUR card. He’s gone on to win twice on TOUR and is closing in on the $10 million mark in career earnings.
Without the $3,200 paycheck in Edmonton, though, would any of that have happened? Hahn thinks not.
“Essentially that was the difference between two PGA TOUR victories and working a desk job for the rest of my life,” Hahn says. “So, you know, money-wise, you could say it's worth two PGA TOUR victories.
“It's a $2,000,000 check. It was the biggest one I've ever had.”
This week’s winner of the Sony Open in Hawaii not only will receive 500 FedExCup points but also a first-place check of $1,152,000. But the most meaningful check of the week at Waialae might be a smaller amount, depending on the player and how the money impacts his life and career.
Indeed, in most weeks on TOUR, it’s not the six- or seven-figure payouts -- while very much appreciated -- that resonate. It’s the ones that proved something or even the ones marked for deposit after a player let a bigger check get away.
J.J. Spaun remembers winning $10,000 at a Gateway Tour event in Arizona. He held a share of the lead entering the final round and played the last 18 holes riding in the same cart with Jimmy Gunn, the man who was tied with him.
“That’s mini-tour golf for you,” Spaun chuckles.
Spaun, who hadn’t planned to play in the tournament and didn’t arrive in time for a practice round, took a one-stroke lead into the last hole and sealed the deal. He got the winner’s check in the mail several days later.
“I didn’t get one of those big ones like Happy Gilmore, but I did get a trophy,” Spaun recalls.
The money was enough to essentially bankroll Spaun in Canada that summer. He drove home to Los Angeles after the tournament ended and took his parents out to dinner to celebrate the win.
“Ultimately the goal is to be on the PGA TOUR and to succeed and to win, but you’ve kind of got to win at every level, every step of the way to kind of prove that you have what it takes,” Spaun says. “So I'm glad that I was able to win at that mini-tour level to kind of prove to myself that I could make a living at this.”
Ryan Armour, who picked up his first TOUR win at the 2017 Sanderson Farms Championship, knows about those stepping stones.
He played the mini-tours for the better part of five years after graduating from Ohio State in 1999 with a degree in communications. In between tournaments, Armour worked in a wine shop.
His first pro start produced a top-10 finish and a whopping $32 paycheck – remember, this was 20 years ago. Armour cashed the check at the same store where he was selling all those bottles of chardonnay and cabernet.
“And lo and behold, (the owner) saves that check and sends it to me like 10 years later, framed,” he recalls. “It was pretty cool.”
The check now hangs on the wall of the hallway leading to the guest room in his home in Jupiter, Florida.
“Not all of us come out and gain status right away out of college,” the 42-year-old says. “I think it's a lesson to be learned that you just keep your head down and keep rolling and good things happen.”
Bubba Watson’s check isn’t framed like Armour’s is -- but he did keep the cardboard replica of the $15,000 he won for winning his first mini-tour event.
“It showed me that I could play,” Watson recalls. “It showed me that I could pay for my car and my house for a little bit longer.”
In reality, though, it wasn’t about the dollar signs. The feeling of accomplishment remains even now after 12 TOUR wins, including two Masters victories.
“It was actually just winning the little trophy and then having a big cardboard cutout check that said $15,000,” Watson explains. “I've never thought about money. I've always just played golf. So, it's cool to have that check.”
Kevin Streelman, who has just started his second decade on TOUR, was on a hot streak when he made the FedExCup Playoffs as a rookie in 2008. The Duke grad had tied for sixth at the Wyndham Championship and followed that up with a share of fourth in the Playoffs opener (the now-THE NORTHERN TRUST) to win $289,333.
“It was just like, holy moly, this is crazy,” Streelman recalls. “We were able to get our first house, put a nice big down payment on it and be comfortable with the mortgage going forward.
“That was one that was just like, just felt very blessed and was one I won't forget.”
Of course, the two-time PGA TOUR winner had another memorable payday when he won the Kodak Challenge bonus pool the following year.
“The next day there was $1.026 million put it into the account and that was kind of like me and (his wife) Courtney looked at each other like, ‘Holy cow,’” Streelman says.
Both Stewart Cink and Charles Howell III made their first TOUR starts as pros at what is now known as the Travelers Championship. They earned sponsor’s invitations after winning NCAA Player of the Year honors; Cink in 1995 and Howell five years later.
Cink ended up tying for 18th and won $15,120.
“Back in those days, it was before you had the phone app and the Internet and all that sort of stuff, so you had to actually get the newspaper the next day (to see what you’d won),” Cink recalls.
“So Lisa (his wife) and I got the newspaper at breakfast and scanned down and saw I made $15,000. We were just getting started and we're college students and pretty much, you know, in debt. It literally felt like one trillion dollars.
“That's when I felt like, oh my gosh, this game may be lucrative and I can do it and that's a check beside my name.”
Howell’s experience was similar. He picked up $13,626 for his tie for 32nd and thought he was rolling in dough.
“I thought I had more money than I’ll ever need,” says Howell, who picked up his third TOUR win last fall at the RSM Classic and who goes into this week with a terrific track record at Waialae – nine top-10s and zero missed cuts in 17 career starts. “Honestly, how great is this -- I get to play golf and they pay me for it.
“I thought this was the greatest thing in the world.”
Davis Love III qualified for the PGA TOUR on his first attempt. But he’d borrowed the entry fee for q-school from his father and had yet to cash a check as a pro when Mark Rolfing invited him to play in a tournament in the 1986 Bahamas Classic.
Love went on to finish third and pocketed $24,100 – part of the winnings going to buy an engagement ring for his future wife, Robin.
“I had no money,” Love recalls. “So that was huge. That was enough money to get me through the year almost, back then. So that was my first like, hey, I’m going to make money playing golf.”
At the end of the year, Rolfing extended another invitation, this time for the Isuzu Kapalua Invitational. Love finished second there and won $84,000. The money won in those two unofficial events nearly equaled the $113,000 Love won in his first season on TOUR, the start of a career that produced 21 wins and inclusion in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Paul Casey’s first check as a pro also came in an exclusive unofficial event called the Callaway Pebble Beach Pro-Am. It was played in November of 2000, the same year the Englishman won his second straight Pac-10 Championship – breaking Tiger Woods’ scoring record -- and then left Arizona State to turn pro.
Casey finished near the top 10 and won $7,000 and promptly bought a Volkswagen (you guessed it) Golf, the first car he’d ever had that he didn’t have to share with his brother. An interesting sidenote: One of his amateur partners that week was Seth Waugh, who recently began his first year as the CEO of the PGA of America.
“I thought I was mega-rich,” Casey says, smiling. “That was the only money I made that year.”
Casey has gone on to win twice on the PGA TOUR, including last year’s Valspar Championship, and 14 times internationally.
“That's still the one that sticks in my mind because I went from a college kid to suddenly I've just made $7,000 in one week,” Casey says. “I'm like, oh, my god, I'm rich. I'm not obviously but I thought I was.”
Tony Finau’s first PGA TOUR check came when he made the cut as a 17-year-old at the 2007 U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee on the strength of a second-round 65. He went on to tie for 70th and pocketed $7,960.
“Just to be able to see a check from the PGA TOUR was pretty cool,” Finau recalls. “It's a dream come true.”
But it would be eight more years before the American of Tongan and Samoan descent made his way onto the TOUR full-time. He played the Web.com Tour, Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada and finished second on Golf Channel’s “Big Break Disney” in 2009.
And the $65,000 that Finau won on the mini-tours in 2011 remains one of his most memorable paychecks. When he checked his bank account on the computer, Finau remembers thinking that he’d never seen that much money.
“I knew that was going to be able to stretch that for at least another 12 months of playing and sometimes that's what it's about when you're playing at that level,” he explains. “You're trying to get to the Web.com Tour through qualifying school, but you're trying to financially keep afloat.
“So I remember at that time that was a huge, a huge boost for me and my son was just born and so that was a big part of getting me through that next year and the next phase of my career. Obviously, the next fall I was able to get through qualifying school and things like that.
“But I think that luxury and that paycheck was a big deal for me.”
In 2002, Matt Kuchar was one of several first-year TOUR members opening the season in Honolulu. The previous year at Waialae, he had missed the cut during his (eventually successful) attempt to earn his TOUR card without going to q-school.
This time, he made it to the weekend.
“Up to that point I had been a college kid or living off mom and dad or the Georgia Tech golf coach picked up the bills,” Kuchar recalls. “And all of a sudden, I've got airfare, accommodations, rental car and I was just shocked at what that was adding up to, to be there to try to play in a PGA TOUR event.
“Holy cow. If I missed the cut it was a costly week. I was awfully glad to make that cut. I can't remember what that check was.”
For the record, Kuchar tied for fourth and won $165,333. A tidy nest egg that grew even larger two months later when he won The Honda Classic.
Like Kuchar, Jordan Spieth and Bryson DeChambeau also found success out of the box on TOUR.
Spieth had a stellar rookie season, playing his way into full TOUR membership when he won the 2013 John Deere Classic. He remembers two checks distinctly – the first being the $65,000 he won for that tie for 22nd at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, his first earnings on TOUR, and the $828,000 the 19-year-old pocketed for that playoff win in Silvis, Illinois, that made him the youngest TOUR winner since 1931.
“They brought out one of the big checks out to the 18th green and that was the most money I'd made on course in a week,” Spieth recalls. “I was sitting there saying, wow, this is really, really cool because they have (the dollar amount) there. Typically, you get the text.”
Of course, that Sunday evening in September when he won the $10 million FedExCup bonus and the TOUR Championship – earning another $1,485,000 -- was pretty cool, too.
“That was when we were just like, this is absurd,” Spieth says. “So, those two kind of stand out, probably more than any.”
DeChambeau was a year away from earning his TOUR card when he tied for fourth at the 2016 RBC Heritage and won $259,600.
“It was just weird,” he remembers. “I made a quarter of a million dollars in my first event. I was 22 at the time I think and that was just insane. I never would have thought that to be possible and it was really fun to be able to see that check deposited in the account.”
Brandt Snedeker had just graduated from Vanderbilt in 2004 when the now-AT&T Byron Nelson extended a sponsor’s exemption to him. The Tennessean, who had won the U.S. Amateur Public Links the previous year, tied for 27th and won $39,440 in his pro debut.
“I remember going into my bank account and checking it on the ATM machine and making sure it was in there,” Snedeker recalls. “I think I went and bought dinner or something, but I thought I was rolling in it. It was cool is to have that first experience of seeing that go in your bank account.”
Of course, reality eventually hits.
“It's like, wait, I've got to pay taxes on this, so don't go crazy here,” he says with a smile. “You know, 30 percent is, is gone right now. So, don't even look at that part of it. But it was, it was really cool to see go in the bank account.”
In a little more than six years on the PGA TOUR, Patrick Reed has won more than $23 million. When asked about his most meaningful check, though, the reigning Masters champion looked back at a leaner year, the 2012 season when he successfully Monday qualified for six of the 12 events he played in.
And it might have been seven had the two-time All-America fresh out of Augusta State not been pulled off the third green of the qualifier at the Valero Texas Open to learn he’d been given a sponsor’s exemption. He went on to tie for 35th and earn $29,915.
“Just to see that amount of money to come in just for a week's work, it was special,” Reed says. “It meant a lot with chasing the Mondays and not having really the backing and the funds for it.”
That night, he and his wife Justine, who was caddying for him, hopped in a car and drove from San Antonio to New Orleans. They arrived around 3 a.m. and teed off at 7:15 in the next Monday qualifier. Another success.
“I knew I was on the right path,” Reed recalls. “It was just kind of like one of those things. Even if you believe that you're supposed to win on TOUR, you believe you can win majors and all this kind of stuff. You can always believe. But you have to do it. Because if you haven't yet, there's a little voice in your head is still always a little doubt in there.”
Zach Johnson, a two-time major champion, remembers Monday qualifying for the 2002 BellSouth Classic, which was just his second TOUR event. He tied for 17th and won $57,000 despite a final-round 75.
“I four-putted the last hole -- I actually lipped out three times to not finish in the top 10,” Johnson recalls. “(So it was) meaningful in the sense that I knew I could play out here. It was the biggest check I'd ever made, even with wins on the mini-tours.
“But then also it was painful because I [frittered] away -- let's say I two-putt from 40 feet instead of four-putt -- it was a hundred-and-some-odd grand.”
Had Johnson finished in the top 10, he would have been exempt into the following week’s PGA TOUR event. Instead, he went to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and played in a Hooters Tour event.
“And I won, but it wasn't what it should have been,” Johnson says.
Chris Kirk had a similar experience at the Houston Open in his rookie season – but a more positive outcome. He came to the final hole tied for second with Scott Verplank, three strokes behind Phil Mickelson.
The $519,200 paycheck would nearly double his earnings to date – and put him over the $1 million mark in just his 10th start as a TOUR member.
“I had like a 4- or 5-footer for par on the last hole on Sunday and I looked up at the scoreboard and saw that I was tied for second,” Kirk recalls. “The first thought that I had (was) this would probably cost me around 100 grand if I missed this putt.
“But thankfully I made it. I remember kind of laughing at myself before I putted on that one. So I don't remember what the check was for, but it was somewhere around a half-million dollars or so. That's pretty big one.”
Conversely, Marc Leishman’s first big check ended up easing the disappointment when he had his first chance to win. The affable Aussie was just a shot off the lead at the 2009 Valero Texas Open when he bogeyed the 17th hole on Sunday.
Leishman, who would go on to win PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year, dropped back into a tie for fifth and picked up $214,216.
“I was pretty disappointed walking off the golf course and then I looked at the sheet in the scoring hut,” Leishman said. “That was my first really big check.
“I won a [Web.com Tour] event before that and you're so happy you don't really think about the money. But to be disappointed and then look there and it definitely softened the blow.”
“Obviously, when you're winning, winning any event out here, it's an eye-opening check.”