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Made It!
JUSTIN HICKS
March 07, 2011
At age 36—after 13 years of picking the range, folding sweaters, working in bag rooms and knocking around the mini-tours—I finally realized my dream: I'm a rookie on the PGA Tour
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March 07, 2011

Made It!

At age 36—after 13 years of picking the range, folding sweaters, working in bag rooms and knocking around the mini-tours—I finally realized my dream: I'm a rookie on the PGA Tour

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Some people think that PGA Tour pros all follow the same path—silver spoons, training academies, All-America awards, Tour riches. That's never been true. There have always been guys like me.

My family was lucky enough that we could join a country club when I was nine, thanks to my dad's job as general manager at an environmental waste-management company in Michigan. From 12 on, I was a golf addict, and while that led to a reasonable high school career, not many colleges were banging down my door.

Michigan had recruited my brother, Todd, to play football, and I never forgot the trip I took with him to Ann Arbor, so that's where I went. It was a wonderful school with a challenging golf course but not a great golf reputation. I made the team as a walk-on and remained a walk-on for four seasons. As a fill-in player, I would compete in only two to four tournaments a year, but when I graduated in 1997, I decided to try professional golf. A lot of people from my hometown and my home club essentially said, What?

I couldn't blame them, but they didn't know one thing: I always played better in the summer, without the distractions of school and social activities. That fact gave me courage. I grew increasingly convinced that there was great golf inside me. I thought, If I played full time, who knows what could happen? Armed with a small nest egg from family and friends, I moved to Florida and turned pro.

I finished fifth in my first Golden Bear mini-tour event and made about $5,000. I thought, Wow, this is what it's all about! But after that the money went quickly. Playing golf was more difficult and expensive than I had imagined.

Within a few months I found myself working at a country club in Palm Beach County. For the next six years, at several clubs, I did everything from cleaning clubs in the bag room to picking the range to folding sweaters in the pro shop, scraping together enough money to get by. Thanks to more contributions from friends and club members, I continued to enter some mini-tour events but couldn't seem to get to the next level. It was tough seeing college friends get law degrees, Ph.D.'s and M.B.A.'s and make good money, while me and my B.A. in political science were in a bag room making $4 an hour plus tips. Or worse, getting turned down for bag-room jobs in favor of high school kids because I was overqualified.

The work itself often veered between brutish and boring, arduous and monotonous. The bag room took a heavy toll on my hands, especially during the winter, when the combination of cold air, wet rags and lifting 40-pound golf bags all day would make my skin crack with countless little cuts. I hit lots of balls with painful, bloody hands.

But I was determined to turn lemons into lemonade. The bag room became my weight room. I'd use those staff bags to do biceps curls, shoulder presses and other exercises. I haven't been that fit since. A Walkman made picking the range less mind numbing, and I'd try to schedule that work for weekends when I could listen to the PGA Tour, which helped keep my ultimate goal top of mind. One surreal memory: riding the ball picker while listening to the NBC telecast from Doral after I had Monday-qualified and missed the cut earlier in the week.

Ours was not a glamorous lifestyle. My wife, Kathryn, and I missed out on countless friends' weddings because we didn't have the money to buy plane tickets and a gift. We certainly caught some flak, but that was where we were—living paycheck to paycheck.

Kathryn, who was in grad school working to become an occupational therapist for the first three years of my career, was always amazingly supportive of my ambition, as were my parents. Still, there were a number of times when Mom or Dad would happen to mention alternative careers. They had expected me to go to graduate school. There were certainly periods, especially when I was injured, when I thought about getting an M.B.A. and working in the golf business. Looking back on it, I see that my parents handled my career choice with more grace and composure than logic might have suggested.

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