Continued (page 2 of 2)
Other times, the money is used to pay back financial backers, as Johnson did, or to other special backers. "I probably paid off all my debts to my parents," said Greg Owen, who estimates his first prize money was more in the area of 100 Pounds after playing well at a local assistant golf pro competition in Nottingham, England. And eight years before he won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Graeme McDowell collected 10,000 Pounds for a T-32 at the 2002 Irish Open and "gave it to my mom because I always promised her that since I was about 12 years old."
Jonathan Byrd needed the money for himself after finishing up a stellar career at Clemson. With no status on any tour, he Monday qualified for the 2000 Michelob Championship and made $14,130 -- something the five-time PGA Tour winner still ranks as one of his most important payouts.
"It was huge," Byrd said. "I'm not sure I would have made it through Q School if not for that."
Chris Kirk's first big payday wasn't as stressful. The University of Georgia star signed a deal with Titleist for $100,000 before he even hit his first shot as a pro. Bill Haas -- whose unexpected win at last year's Tour Championship netted him a $10-million bonus -- had a unique experience as well. He split his first check with his dad, Jay, when the father-son combo won the 2004 CVS Classic in Rhode Island. But even after earning half of a sizable winner's check of $250,000, Haas, having learned about the feast-or-famine nature of pro golf from his father, didn't go crazy with his newfound riches.
"I knew pretty quick that although that's a lot of money, a lot would be going out before a lot would be coming in," Haas said.
THEN AND NOW
Ted Potter Jr.'s long and strange odyssey to this year's FedEx Cup Playoffs began on the Orlando-based Moonlight Tour. Having played so many obscure tours since turning pro a decade ago, Potter doesn't recall the exact place or tournament, but he does remember what it felt like.
"When you get that first check, that kind of shows that's what you're going to do," Potter said. "It was kind of like a part time job at first."
It's certainly not like that anymore for Potter and those fortunate enough to be teeing it up on the PGA Tour from week to week. Brian Davis said he felt "like a millionaire" after winning 10,773 pounds for a sixth-place in his first European Tour event. "Now, we get that just making the cut. It's pretty scary."
It also turns out that belief, even through small accomplishments by would-be stars like Johnson, is its own currency. That first pro check may have barely covered gas and hotel money, but it wound up going a lot further than that.
"My whole journey has been a huge process," he said. "There's been a lot of imagining, but that was also what fueled me."