Checking a golf bag at the airport is always a fun experience. The 50 pound limit is a struggle every time. More often than not, one of the gate agents will see me put down the huge bag on the scale and come over for a closer inspection. It usually goes like this:
“Whoa, that’s a big bag you got there. What’s in it?”
“It’s my golf clubs.”
“Oh yeah? Going on vacation? Where to?”
“No, I’m going to a tournament. I’m a golfer.”
“Uh … oh. That’s nice. Do you play for your school?”
“No, I graduated already.”
“Oh, okay. That’s great. Are you trying to turn professional?”
“Well, I am a professional.”
“Oh! Well … congratulations.”
It’s always a little awkward, but I’m used to it now. I guess most people don’t expect pros to be flying economy, but that’s the economic reality for most female professional golfers. Sponsorships can be tricky to secure, and the prize money doesn’t always offset your travel expenses, unless you have a top finish. So most of us are standing around waiting for Boarding Zone 3 like everybody else.
Actually, my first year on the Symetra Tour (the qualifying tour of the LPGA), even flying to most tournaments was out of the question. I shared a car the whole year with another golfer, Lili Alvarez, and we were on a permanent road trip. We would finish a tournament on Sunday, then drive eight hours to the next city. I happen to be intolerant to gluten and lactose, which made our road trips pretty tricky. All you see when you’re on the highway is McDonald’s, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King. I spent a lot of time picking everything but the lettuce out of the salad until I learned to go to the health food store and stock up with a month’s worth of dried fruit and nuts and stuff for the car.
When you get to the next tournament, the math is not exactly in your favor. You’re paying $500 a week for the tournament entry fee. But you also have to pay between $500 to $800 per week for a caddy. There’s 144 players. The top 70 make the cut to the weekend. Even if you get into the money, the payout for 70th place can be as little as $300.
So $300 minus $500, minus $500, minus gas, minus tolls.
Not a pretty picture.
Since turning pro in 2012, I’ve made a total of $183,000 in tour earnings over my four years as a pro. When you factor in travel costs to and from tournaments, plus caddy fees, it adds up to about $75,000 per year in expenses, give or take. Unless you have an exceptional year, you don’t have much, if anything, left over.
Even when your game is good and you have a decent finish (win a purse), you often come out of the weekend having less money. The old joke on the tour is, “My caddie made more than me this week. They’re buying dinner.”
Of course, it’s not all bad. This lifestyle also makes for some great adventures. In order to save money on hotels, we often stay with “host families” who live close to the golf courses holding the tournaments. Most of the families are just golf fans who have regular jobs. A lot of them have kids who left for college, so you’ll get there and they’ll show you to the kid’s old room. I’ve had everything from all-pink bedrooms to bedrooms with Metallica posters on the walls.
It’s kind of fun to see what you’re going to get.
This year, when I was traveling to the KPMG LPGA Championship, the airline lost my suitcase. Like, it completely disappeared. I landed in a new city with only my golf clubs and the clothes on my back right before one of the five Majors. When I got to my host family’s house, the mother was like, “Oh don’t worry honey, my daughter is your size!” I ended up wearing her daughter’s clothes the whole week.
For people who aren’t in the golf community, this might seem like a strange situation, but it’s just part of the unique culture of golf. I’ve never had a bad experience, actually. The only funny part of it is that sometimes you sit down for dinner and someone will ask, “So … I’m having this problem slicing my drive …”
All you want to do is not think about golf for an hour, and you can end up diagnosing somebody’s backswing issue. But it’s just part of the deal.
What’s so cool about it is that you get close with these families, and they come to watch you on the weekend. It’s like having your own little cheering section. I started traveling internationally at 16, and it was very tough to leave my family in Mexico. It can be a lonely life. I don’t think I could’ve gotten through it without my host families. Living out of a hotel would have been too lonely.
Some of them have kept in touch. One of my host families in Florida calls me “their little Mexican granddaughter.” To me, that’s so special. You don’t get those kinds of connections when you’re flying private jets everywhere.
Still, it’s a complicated feeling to be a “pro” golfer. All my life, this was my goal. Every since I started playing in Mexico City when I was six years old, I’d tell my parents, “Drop me off at the golf course after school and come pick me up when it gets dark.”
When I got a scholarship to the University of Arizona, I thought I had it made for life. Everything was top-class. We got fitted for a custom set of clubs every single year. We got free Ping and Nike gear. Best of all, we got free golf balls. Do you know how expensive golf balls are?
Then you graduate and basically start from zero. Let me put it this way: At Arizona, whenever we would miss a fairway, we would just let it go. It’s desert golf. There’s rattlesnakes out in the rough. I’d lose a ball and look for it for approximately two seconds before giving up.
As soon as I graduated, it was like, “Screw it, I’m going in there. I’m not losing another $5 ball. Let the rattlesnake deal with me.”
This past year has been a great one for me. I won my first tournament and finished 7th on the Symetra Tour’s money list to earn full status on the LPGA Tour next year. But the reality is, many golfers on the women’s tour are still budgeting meals and looking out for sweet deals on flight alert apps.
We talk a lot about equality issues in the women’s golf community. Nobody seems to have an easy answer for how to ease the burden of travel expenses. We understand why it’s tough for brands to invest major money in a young golfer, but there’s so much potential for brands to think outside the box and tap into the global potential of the women’s game.
For instance, there is a non-profit association in Mexico called “IGPM” that helps pros just starting out, and they work numerous hours and host tournaments to help us pay for our entry fees and some hotels. It would be fantastic if more brands were active like this at a grassroots level.
The little girls who love this game really love it, no matter where we are born. We wake up at 4 a.m. to go play in tournaments. We leave our families at a young age. We sleep in airports. We pick everything but the lettuce out of the fast food salad. Not to be on the cover of a magazine, but to stay in peak condition for our sport.
We live for golf, even if the life isn’t glamorous. And it’s not about chasing the big pay day. It’s just about the pure love of it.
There’s a lot of power in that. It has nothing to do with image or personal brand. I wish more people would see it.