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Changing the game

The APGA Tour, a decade after its founding, braces for its first shot at a national TV audience

Willie Mack II (center) poses with APGA Tour tournament director Cole Smith (left) and tour CEO Ken Bentley.

January 28, 2022

SAN DIEGO — The folks who run the Farmers Insurance Open like their surprises. In late 2020, Farmers CEO Jeff Dailey was on a video call with pro golfer Kamaiu Johnson under the pretense that they’d talk about his sponsorship deal with the company. Instead, Dailey delivered the news that Johnson—one of the top players on the Advocates Professional Golf Association Tour—would receive an exemption into the 2021 Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.

This past fall, it was Johnson who was supposed to deliver the same good news to another APGA player, Ryan Alford, about an exemption into the 2022 Farmers. And once Johnson provided that announcement, he got a shock of his own. Farmers Open Executive Director Marty Gorsich told Johnson he’d also be exempt into the field.

Finally, they saved the best “gotcha” moment for last. It was Dailey who called APGA founder and CEO Ken Bentley to share the biggest news: With the Farmers Open switching to a Wednesday-Saturday schedule for ’22 because of TV conflicts with the NFL’s conference championship games, Farmers, the PGA Tour and Golf Channel were offering a Sunday television slot for the final round of the APGA tournament that for the third year was being played on the same weekend, on the same grounds, as the Farmers Open.

“My excitement at hearing that was over the top,” Bentley said. “This will be a watershed moment for us.”

For the first time, the APGA, a tour founded by Bentley in 2010 to give minorities greater opportunities to play professional golf, will have a tournament televised nationally. Seventeen pros and one amateur were selected to play in the 36-hole APGA Tour Farmers Insurance Invitational. They are set to play the Torrey Pines North Course in the first round Saturday, followed by the final round Sunday on Torrey South, the site of two U.S. Opens and the annual Farmers Open.

For this Sunday’s event, there will be working electronic score boards, walking scorers and standard bearers. PGA Tour rules officials will oversee the proceedings. Everything will be as it is for a big-league golf Sunday, other than a bountiful gallery, which will be limited to a smattering of friends and family.

The money is historic, too. The total purse of $100,000 and winner’s share of $30,000 are both the highest the tour has ever offered.

Asked about his excitement leading into the event, Marcus Byrd, a second-year APGA player, said, “Well, for starters, the winner gets $30,000. That’s enough to change a kid’s life. Especially guys like me who are just starting out and getting into the swing of things. It keeps you going, gives you the chance to chase your dreams.”

Tim O'Neal is one of the most accomplished players on the APGA Tour.

Keyur Khamar

Byrd, the 2019 Conference USA Player of the Year while playing college golf at Middle Tennessee State, finished second in the APGA’s 2021 Lexus Cup season standings and estimates he made about $20,000. His check for winning the APGA’s New Orleans stop at TPC Louisiana, where he seized control with a first-round 64, was $8,000. Byrd would absolutely relish being on TV to battle down the stretch for the top prize. “I’m feeling more excitement than anything,” the 24-year-old said. “Let’s just say I’m more anxious to get out in front of them [on TV] than I’m not.”

The Farmers Invitational field features a couple of names that should be recognizable to golf fans. Tim O’Neal, who played in his first PGA Tour event after qualifying for the 2015 U.S. Open, is still grinding at age 49. He’s played for years on the PGA Tour's developmental tours and is hopeful for a shot at the senior circuit when he turns 50 in August. Willie Mack III is coming off perhaps his greatest golf year ever, having made the cut in two PGA Tour starts—the Rocket Mortgage Classic in his home state of Michigan and the John Deere Classic. Mack, 33, also won twice on the APGA, prevailing by six shots in the Tour Championship at TPC Sugarloaf and adding a victory in the Billy Horschel Invitational, played at TPC Sawgrass, home of the Players Championship.

Horschel, a six-time PGA Tour winner, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the APGA since he met Mack while they both worked a clinic at the Farmers Open two years ago.

“It’s going to be unbelievable,” Horschel said this week of APGA’s Sunday opportunity. “A lot of people are going to see how great these guys are.

“They’re going to play a course they haven’t played before—a challenging course that they’re not used to playing with that type of rough, the tight fairways, the firm and fast greens. Hopefully, everybody plays well. Realistically, some guys are going to struggle. But I hope the people watching at home, the people who want to have an impact on the game, when they see these guys, they want to do something about it. They’re going to get exposure they’ve never gotten.”

Notable to first-time watchers of the APGA: Not all of the players on the tour are people of color. Bentley said about 65 percent are African American, 15 percent are Latino, 15 percent are white and 5 percent are of Asian or Indian descent. Among the most dominating players last year, with two wins and top-seven finishes in all his starts, was Landon Lyons, a 30-year-old golfer out of LSU who will play much of his time on the Latinoamerica Tour in 2022 after earning his first tour card through Q School. Lyons, who is white, captured the APGA Torrey Pines event in ’21.

“I never want to be in a position where a guy like Landon Lyons can’t play on our tour,” Bentley said.

With a television slot of 5-7 p.m. EST on Golf Channel, the APGA will be going against the NFC Championship Game between two California teams, with the Los Angeles Rams hosting the San Francisco 49ers. Bentley is realistic enough to know that his event may draw only the hard-core golf viewer, though he added, “We’re hoping some people will step over from the football game to watch us.”

No matter the audience, the Torrey Pines tournament is one more big step ahead for the APGA, which has grown dramatically in only the last two years. The 17 events on the 2022 schedule are the most in tour history, and the total prize money is $700,000—up from $250,000 in 2020. The venues include eight TPC courses and two other well-known major venues beyond Torrey—Baltusrol and Valhalla. Farmers also announced this week that it signed a five-year extension in its support of the APGA, which includes the insurance company sponsoring the tour’s four Fall Series events.

Other big companies have taken interest in supporting the circuit, including Cisco, MasterCard and World Wide Technology, the largest black-owned company in the U.S. It feels for Bentley as if the tide has turned very much in the tour’s direction.

“Last year was a dream for us,” Bentley said. “From a publicity standpoint. From a fundraising standpoint. From how our guys played better than they ever have. And I think going into this year, the excitement from our board, from our players, and I think the golf community, it’s like a dream.”