The word “athlete” can mean many things. It exists under the definition “someone with athletic ability,” so LeBron James is an athlete, but so too is my grandpa who can swing a golf club strong enough to hit the ball 150 yards. Writing about sports proves this idea continuously.
Until you get close enough to the sport, however, the title “professional athlete” seems to only mean a few things (like Tiger Woods and the 53 Green Bay Packers or the 25 Milwaukee Brewers). Those “athletes” skilled enough to be paid millions of dollars in competition and endorsements rightfully earned the title. Once you step closer, though, things will look much different.
I had the chance to last week at the lower levels of professional golf: the mini tours.
The mini tours are an interesting place. The players are good. Really good. They can step onto any course and, if their game is on, go out and shoot 5-under par. When their game isn’t quite all there, they’ll walk off the 18th green disgruntled at 1-over. Under par is the expectation, much like it is for Rory McIlroy.
But instead of playing for millions of dollars like McIlroy, they’re fighting for $10,000 (AKA enough to help pay for rent for the year, the key word being “help”). Much like minor league baseball, they’re taking Bon Jovi’s song to its literal extent, living on a prayer.
They dream about that week where the birdies pile up and the scorecards remain bogey-free. They dream about that week turning into a month and that month turning into a year and that year turning into a career. It’s true: they can make a living playing a sport, just like the many others who grace SportsCenter each morning.
But it isn’t easy and no one said it was going to be. But for some—actually, for most—it’s all they’ve known. Grad school was ignored or put on hold. Even an undergrad degree was considered optional.
So it’s a lifestyle envied by so many and lived by so few, largely because their skill level is so unique. It includes a progression that usually takes years. Or years and years. Or years and years and years, depending on a list of various circumstances that can fluctuate with the wind (the actual wind sometimes).
But it can be incredibly rewarding. That is all too obvious to the amateurs that trek out to the local course every Saturday morning, forking over hundreds of dollars to play a sport that professional golfers are paid to play. If only it were that simple. It’s a shame it seems that simple from the outward view the Golf Channel and CBS or NBC or ESPN show us every weekend.
In the end, though, they can confidently say they love their job. At least sometimes. Generally, they’re swinging those iron sticks for the love of the game, their financial thoughts pushed aside.
To an extent, that’s all that matters.