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  • Hector Amezcua /

    Grant Norton of Rancho Murieta prepares to putt in the Northern California Open at Whitney Oaks on Tuesday. He turned pro and began playing minitours late in 2010.

  • Hector Amezcua /

    Jake Johnson of Cameron Park took an uncommon path for California players by joining the eGolf Professional Tour in the Carolinas this year.

  • Hector Amezcua /

    Hector Amezcua Kevin Lucas of Folsom has competed in 20 minitour events this year and won twice. His biggest payday was $4,000.

  • Paul Kitagaki Jr. /

    Kevin Lucas, lining up putt while playing in the community college state tournament for Sierra College in 2009, has seen his fortunes rise after getting a sponsorship that helps defrat costs as he pursues his golf dream.

Big dreams motivate minitour golfers

Published: Wednesday, Sep. 11, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Wednesday, Sep. 11, 2013 - 6:26 am

The next time you hit a poor golf shot, be thankful.

It could be worse, or at least more frustrating. You could be among the thousands of golfers who always hit the ball great, shoot in the mid-60s and whip everybody except the absolute elite.

These players exist in a purgatory known as the minitours, where dreams are big but the odds of ultimate success are so slim that talent is practically a curse.

Grant Norton turned pro and started his minitour existence late in 2010. He's one of 89 pros in the Northern California Open this week at Whitney Oaks, where you won't find glamor, adoring fans or fancy cursive names on fancy golf bags.

It's the latest stop on a pothole-filled road to what most hope leads to the PGA Tour. It's Norton's 23rd way-off-Broadway tournament of the year.

While playing most tournaments requires travel and lodging expenses along with an entry fee, generally adding up to between $1,500 and $2,000 per event, this is a home event for Norton, a Rancho Murieta resident.

Entry fees fund purses, and Norton paid $600 to play for a first prize of $6,000. If he makes the cut, he breaks even on the entry fee.

"We are professional gamblers," Norton said. "But this is not about making money. It's about gaining experience. I'm learning how to play well week in and week out."

Norton, a soft-spoken 25-year-old, estimates he lost $5,000 in 2011, broke even in 2012 and has "made enough to pay the few bills I have," this year.

Among the PGA,, European and various tours in Canada, Asia, Australia, South America and Africa, and more than 60 minitours throughout the United States, maybe 600 men worldwide under age 50 earn enough annually to suggest they make a living playing golf.

That number is significantly lower for women.

Finances as much as talent dictate who continues to pursue the dream of reaching golf's major leagues and the accompanying windfall.

Folsom's Kevin Lucas, 25, could afford to play only close to home after turning pro last year. His prospects for this year weren't any better - until a conversation with a family friend at his brother's wedding led to a sponsorship deal.

The sponsoring couple pay all of Lucas' golf-related expenses and get a percentage of his earnings in return. Lucas knows he's one of the lucky ones.

"My game has risen to a whole new level because of them," he said.

He's played in 20 events and won twice, and his biggest check was $4,000. More importantly, he's been able to seek the stiffest competition that will best prepare him for his ultimate goal.

Cameron Park's Jake Johnson, 23, opted for a path less taken - for Californians, at least - joining the eGolf Professional Tour in the Carolinas this year after turning pro last year. He wanted to expedite the learning curve with travel and unfamiliar grasses and courses.

While he's had little success on the course - he missed 11 cuts in 12 events, seven by one shot - at an estimated cost of $30,000, he believes the experience will benefit him in the long run.

"I'm taking more from it than I lost," he said. "It's a drop in the bucket for what could be a very lucrative career."

Norton, Lucas and Johnson - young, optimistic and with healthy heads of hair curling out from under their golf caps - are among dozens of players with Sacramento-area ties pursuing their dream on the minitours. They range from thirtysomethings Scott Gordon and Dillon Dougherty to recent college graduates Ben Geyer and Tyler Raber.

For every phenom like Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, there are 10 players on the PGA Tour who clawed their way up the minitours.

Ted Potter Jr. was a Hooters Tour legend before he made it to the Tour in 2004, where he missed the cut in all 24 starts. He won the PGA Tour's Greenbrier Classic in 2012.

Rich Beem was moderately successful on the Dakotas Tour before becoming a major-championship winner.

James Hahn was selling shoes at a Pleasanton Nordstrom before parlaying success on the Gateway Tour to the PGA Tour in 2012.

Norton, Lucas and Johnson each won a college tournament but didn't exhibit the ability to suggest success as a pro. Norton, a short-game magician, and Johnson, with prodigious power, said Sacramento State director of golf David Sutherland, a longtime touring pro, encouraged them.

"It's something we've thought about since we were kids," Johnson said. "As kids, we used to say, 'This putt is to win the Masters.' Now it's real. I didn't want to be years down the road seeing players I used to beat succeeding and wonder why that wasn't me."

The PGA Tour's annual qualifying tournament, which feeds to the Tour for the first time this year, remains the narrow window through which nearly every player not named Tiger Woods, Spieth or Fowler must pass. Lucas and Johnson advanced through prequalifying last month, while Norton was exempt into next month's first stage.

Minitours have been around since the PGA Tour took its current shape in 1968. For more than 20 years, until the Ben Hogan Tour - the forerunner to the Tour - came under the umbrella of the PGA Tour as a developmental tour in 1990, there were arguably more good players on minitours since there were fewer places to play.

Norton, Lucas and Johnson, when pressed, broke down a typical minitour field: 50 percent can win, 25 percent can do OK if they play their best and 25 percent are contributing to the pot. Of the 50 percent who can win, maybe 5 percent have what it takes to reach and succeed at the next level, they said.

"You have to know that you're going to be that guy," Lucas said. "The true competitor is tested at every level. The ones who succeed are the ones who are able to raise their games to meet every new challenge."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Call The Bee's Steve Pajak, (916) 326-5526.

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