News & Opinion

Dream gig comes with cost for tour pros

Soren Kjeldsen always dreamed of playing a full season on the PGA Tour. The Dane had competed for nearly 20 years on the European Tour when he finally took the plunge to play stateside in 2017. But after starting the year at the Sony Open in Hawaii, he lasted only until the Wells Fargo Championship in early May.

"I couldn't do it anymore," said Kjeldsen, who did return to play the Memorial, PGA Championship and a last-gasp effort to retain his playing privileges at the Wyndham Championship later that season but hasn't played in the U.S. since. "It was just quality of life. With me being 42 at the time, I felt too old to be starting all over, and that's what it felt like: starting all over."

Soren Kjeldsen
After 2 decades of competing on his home tour in Europe, Denmark’s Soren Kjeldsen finds that life on the PGA Tour can seem like ‘starting all over.’

Life on the PGA Tour is a dream of eight-figure purses, luxury courtesy cars and endless buffets, but it also can be a lonely occupation, especially for foreign players seeking to compete against the deepest fields in the world in an unfamiliar land. Ireland's Padraig Harrington is a three-time major winner and veteran of both circuits and explains why playing the PGA Tour can be "uncomfortable" for Europeans trying to make the jump.

"You can miss a cut in the States Friday morning, and you play your next round of golf Thursday afternoon. That's six full days, OK. And this is why a lot of Europeans have struggled in the States. You miss a few putts, miss a few cuts and you get down. You've got to have a social outlet. Six days is a lot of time to fill. You can only hit so many balls.

"I missed the cut this year at Wentworth [in the BMW PGA in England], and I was home for tea. It was like somebody gave me a bonus for missing the cut. . . . You get your head sorted. You don't feel so bad once you get home, and then you can have a couple of days practicing."

Kjeldsen described his loneliness as stemming from being separated from his family, but also the way Americans tend to travel with an entourage compared to Europeans, who tend to travel solo and often eat en masse. But on the PGA Tour, Kjeldsen felt isolated, eating alone in his hotel room night after night until Harrington and his brother-in-law/caddie Ronan Flood invited the Dane to join them. The company and good cheer provided relief (though Kjeldsen did lose at credit-card roulette).

"For me, the challenge was really when I left the golf course,” Kjeldsen said. “Once I got back to the golf course, I was happy again."

Germany's Martin Kaymer can relate. He has tried to balance maintaining dual membership, with mixed results, and says he has found spending two or even three weeks on the road without friends or family manageable.

"When it gets to be several months, the alone thing can become lonely," he said.

Kaymer has benefited from having the right support structure. His brother, Philip, who doubles as the golfer’s manager, travels with Kaymer, who is adding a new wrinkle this season by moving into a new apartment complex next month near The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla.

"I can drive home in between tournaments and sleep in my own bed, wash my clothes and pack my stuff and maybe even drive to the next tournament," he said. "It will never be home, but it will be as comfortable as it can be."

Pros often take for granted that they will adjust to different food and a suitcase lifestyle. Belgians Nicolas Colsaerts and Thomas Pieters, England's David Lynn, and, a generation ago, even the late Seve Ballesteros of Spain, were or are content to play primarily in Europe, where they have a crew of countrymen to eat, talk and hang with and, for Ballesteros, no language barrier.

Several of the leading Europeans haven't just adapted, they've planted roots here. Spain's Jon Rahm (Scottsdale, Ariz.) is engaged to his American sweetheart from his days at Arizona State, and Rory McIlroy (Jupiter, Fla.) and Sergio Garcia (Austin, Texas) have married American women and settled in the U.S.

Thailand's Kiradech Aphibarnrat hopes that he too can make a swift transition. Of earning his PGA Tour card for the 2018-19 season, he said, "It's like a dream come true. Since I was a kid, my goal has been to be a part of the PGA Tour."

To enhance his chances of a soft landing, Aphibarnrat and his wife are setting up shop in Orlando, Fla. Why Orlando?

"Because Ariya and Moriya [Jutanugarn] are there," he said, referring to the Thai sisters, both of whom won on the LPGA last season. The city also offers ample flights to Heathrow Airport in London and Dubai for him to get home to Bangkok and the far-flung locales of European Tour stops. Aphibarnrat also can count on help from his longstanding friendships with Tour veterans, Danny Lee, whom he competed against in his youth, and Ben An, one of his best friends.

"He lives in Orlando, too," Aphibarnrat said of An. "He gives me a lot of advice – where to stay, which events to play and to skip. He tells me very nicely which courses fit my game."

Harrington, for one, predicts Aphibarnrat shouldn't have too much trouble making the leap to the PGA Tour lifestyle, given that he already has succeeded in transitioning from the Asian Tour to the European Tour.

"The European and Asian culture is so different. You could argue that he will actually assimilate better in the U.S.," Harrington said. "The best advice I can give to him is have a friend with him. If your caddie is not a friend, have a friend who is with you full time so you have someone to keep you sane during the off-course time. You've got to have a social outlet."

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak