By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Writer
Published July 24, 2011
Justin Hicks was a decade out of college and hardly any closer to reaching his dream than when he slung his golf bag over his shoulder and left Michigan's campus.
While his friends were getting MBAs and JDs and Doctorates, Hicks was parking carts at public golf clubs.
He was mired on the Nationwide Tour — professional golf’s version of AAA baseball, but with no guaranteed paychecks, no paid food and travel and crummy facilities. He was trying to keep his dream alive of playing on the PGA Tour.
Hicks did not have a typical college career for a professional golfer. Though he was on the Michigan men's golf team, he rarely broke into the starting lineup.
“It wasn’t that I struggled in my college career by any means,” Hicks said. “It just became pretty apparent to me that the way things were here, I wasn’t a guy that was going to be called upon. There was a lot of politics involved with who was chosen to be in starting lineups.”
But although his collegiate golf career didn’t turn out as he would have liked, he enjoyed Michigan for the social and academic aspect and has fond memories of Ann Arbor; he still visits every year.
Still, when he graduated in 1997, Hicks couldn’t shake the itch to play golf and was ready to pursue a career in the sport, trying to reach the PGA Tour.
“In large part, I was under the notion that you need to be a stellar college athlete to consider a professional career,” Hicks said. “But when it gets down to it, the vast majority of professionals on the PGA Tour don’t come out of large schools. A lot of them come from very small schools from rural parts of the United States.”
Perhaps the most well-known way to get on the PGA Tour is through the three-stage process known as Q-School. Golfers must be in the top 25 of first stage to reach second stage and then in the top 20 to reach the finals. In the finals, the top 25 get their PGA Tour cards.
But playing Q-School costs $5,000 and all it takes is one bad tournament to get you knocked out and Hicks wasn’t willing to take the risk coming out of college.
Instead, he moved to Florida and got involved in mini-tour events. They could cost anywhere from $100-$1000, but they gave Hicks a chance to get his feet wet in the professional ranks. The smaller the entry fee, the smaller the prizes, and the higher the entry fee, the more rewarding the payoff.
But Hicks quickly learned that this was no way to make a living. He was losing money and had to score jobs at golf clubs in order to sustain his career.
But he caught a break in 2001 when he got a taste of his dream.
Hicks beat a 150-man field in a Monday qualifier for the Genuity Championship – a PGA Tour event in Doral, Fla. Though Hicks missed the cut, he came out of the event feeling good about himself.
“It was kind of like the realization of something beginning for me and it definitely was an exciting week,” Hicks said. “It allowed me to see all the big names and play a golf course that was in PGA Tour condition.”
Getting a glimpse of what Hicks hoped would eventually be his future, he couldn’t help but be overcome by the aspirations of grandeur.
“I was working on a driving range and taking care of the carts at a country club with a college degree from the University of Michigan making minimum wage,” Hicks said. “In other respects, this was what I was doing all that for.
“I knew that for me, working at golf clubs and country clubs and resorts, was just a means for me to keep things going so that I could one day have the chance of playing on the PGA Tour. That’s what it was all about for me.”
Qualifying for big events eventually became a trend for Hicks, though he continued to fall well short of earning himself a permanent spot on the tour.
In 2004, Hicks earned his spot in a more celebrated event – the U.S Open in Shinnecock Hills, N.Y.
He was among half the field who earned a spot in the event through two sets of qualifiers. And he became just the third Wolverine to play in a major.
With massive crowds and his family and friends in attendance, the experience was unlike anything Hicks had ever been in.
“Just starting on Monday, you’re seeing crowds out there for practice rounds and everyone wants autographs,” Hicks said. “You just got off a plane a day and a half ago and nobody knew who you were and now you have all these people asking you to sign flags and posters. It’s a great opportunity because you know that if you go out there and play four good rounds of golf, your name is on the radar screen of people to be known about when it comes to golf.”
He didn’t made the cut in the tournament known for Phil Mickelson’s double bogey on the 17th hole to squander the championship to Retief Goosen.
But four years later, Hicks found himself in another U.S Open and not only did he make the cut, he was the co-leader after the first round at 3-under par in Torrey Pines, Calif.
If he was surprised at the fanfare of just playing in the Open in 2004, leading it in 2007 was even more exhilarating.
“It was probably one of the more interesting experiences of my life from the standpoint that the U.S. Open gets not only a lot more attention from the crowds, but the media attention is ten-fold from a regular PGA Tour event,” Hicks said. “It’s good because you’re reaching a totally different audience that you usually don’t reach on a weekly basis with a PGA Tour event.”
Though Hicks relished having the lead in a major, his obligations after the round took a lot out of him. Five hours of interviews and press conferences after the round were not something Hicks was used to.
“It was a great experience to have the lead and to play on it and sleep on it, but at the same time it was a difficult one,” he said. “When all was said and done, you get a little tired of having to tell reporters who you are over and over again.”
The rest of the tournament didn’t go well.
Though Hicks made the cut, he fell out of contention with a disastrous second day — he shot a nine-over par 80. The poor round was compounded by Hicks’ group being put on the clock by rules officials because of an inexperienced collegiate player in the group who wasn’t playing by the rules. This added undue stress for Hicks and amplified the excruciation of falling further and further off the lead.
In three days, Hicks went from being in the center of the golf world, to just another nobody. Again.
The appearance in the U.S. Open couldn’t improve Hicks' career prospects. He was still bouncing around the Nationwide Tour circuit, and he still wasn’t looking at a sustainable career.
It had been more than a decade since he turned pro, but he still wasn’t able to secure a career with a steady income which he could live a comfortable life from. A few times he had thought of giving up his dream to pursue a more traditional living.
“I knew for me the biggest thing that I had realized at that point in my life was, if you’re going to do something as far as an occupation, you need to find what your passion is and follow it,” Hicks said. “And that’s what I was doing. It wasn’t my passion to do those jobs that I was doing at the time, but I knew that I was working towards the goal of my true dream.
“I wanted to really try to do the one thing in life that I really love doing.”
The 2010 Nationwide Tour finally gave Hicks the shot at the PGA Tour he was looking for. He stayed near the top of the money list throughout the season and earned a first-place finish in the BMW Charity Pro-Am. But he missed the cut in three of his last seven tournaments to put his chances for the PGA Tour card in jeopardy.
But after the final tournament of the season, Hicks found himself in 25th on the money list — the final qualifying spot for the PGA Tour card. He would be a fully exempt member of the PGA Tour for the 2011 season. He had finished ahead of No. 26 by a mere $2,000.
Hicks doesn’t hold anything back when talking about how it’s been to play on the Tour this year.
First there’s the reward of having his work of 14 years pay off and have the opportunity to do that same job he’s been doing for more money. But that’s not why he loves it.
“To me, it’s not as much about the money,” he says. “I’m not one of these people that wakes up every day dreaming about making millions. That’s not what drives me with this sport. It’s more so, knowing I’m going to play awesome golf courses with thousands of people watching and with people on TV and in person, millions.”
Hicks goes on to talk about the hundreds of volunteers that make sure that every tournament he plays in is immaculately run and each area of the facility, pristine. Or the people waiting for him when he lands at the airport to wait on him. Or the courtesy Lexuses or BMWs he gets for each tournament. Or the people at the driving range waiting to give him brand new top-of-the-line golf balls.
Or maybe it’s the chefs that make him breakfast and lunch every day — and make him whatever he wants. Or the locker room attendants that take care of his shoes, mail things for him and make sure his every want is tended to. Or the reps from equipment companies that will give him any club he wants, of any length and any degree.
“The fact that they try to cater to your every whim and everywhere you look, there are people doing things to make your life easier for you,” Hicks said. “It’s a wonderful lifestyle to be involved in more than anything. But I just enjoy the thrill of seeing all these different places all these incredible golf courses in immaculate shape.”
In the 15 PGA events Hicks has played this year, he has struggled. He’s made just six cuts (including the U.S. Open) but has finished better than 20th three times.
He stands at 159th on the money list, having earned $276,762. Only the top 125 retain their Tour cards for the next year, so Hicks must make a run in the last couple of months to do so.
Still, Hicks relishes this year, knowing that almost a decade and a half out of college, he has reached his dream.
“I worked 14 years and I did a lot of jobs that I didn’t want to do and I did them because I had to do it in order to make ends meet so that I could have this opportunity,” Hicks said. “For me, this is what I’ve always wanted to do since I got out of school.”