Johnson Wagner made the most of his first pro start, winning the 2002 Met Open.
Long before he reached the upper echelon of the PGA Tour, making three U.S. Ryder Cup teams and claiming a familiar green jacket, Zach Johnson was just another uncertain college graduate looking to enter the workforce.
Soon after graduating from Drake University in 1998, Johnson turned pro and started teeing it up in tournaments around the Midwest. The checks on the now-defunct Prairie Golf Tour may have had a few less zeros than the ones he cashes now, but for Johnson, they were still life-altering.
"Oh, it was huge," said Johnson, who remembers receiving less than $1,000 for a top-5 finish in his first pro event. "I was a wide-eyed kid just trying to play. It was awesome."
With a potential $10 million bonus awaiting at the Tour Championship in Atlanta, many tour pros still rank some of the tiniest paychecks of their careers among the most memorable. John Merrick still has the $3,200 check he received for finishing third in a Hooters Tour event (he had ponied up $1,000 for the entry fee) hanging in a frame in his room. Hey, for a 22-year-old living at home and driving around a 15-year-old car in Indio, Calif.'s summer heat, a few grand can go a long way.
Even for players who have always seemed destined for greatness, that initial breakthrough can be memorable. Take Adam Scott. The Aussie has houses all over the world and once owned a private jet that allowed him to comfortably travel between all of them. Yet the 31-year-old still lights up when he recalls where it all started.
"I played in the Compaq European Grand Prix (in 2000) and finished well down the field," said Scott, who was 19 at the time. "I got $1,737 Pounds or 1,377 Pounds, so it was nothing to brag about. But it was a check. I finished ninth the next week at the Irish Open, though. That was a 12,000-Pound check and I thought I was rich."
Some of the game's all-time greats had similar beginnings. A broke Ben Hogan almost packed it in for good until pocketing a $350 check for third at the 1938 Sacramento Open. Jack Nicklaus' T-50 at the 1962 L.A. Open netted him $33.33 (below), and Tiger Woods' debut at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open resulted in a check for just $2,544 (although Woods, who had made his famous "Hello, World" introduction days earlier, was already on the Nike payroll by then).
WELCOME TO THE BIG LEAGUES
Johnson Wagner's first pro payday wasn't even planned. After winning the Metropolitan Open as an amateur in 2001, Wagner failed to qualify for the U.S. Amateur the following summer. Disappointed, he decided instead to turn pro and defend his Met Open title at Winged Foot. This time when he won, he took home the trophy as well as $23,000.
"It paid for my Q School entry and a new car, so it was a great day," the three-time PGA Tour winner beamed.
Sometimes, getting that first check can be an introduction to the harsh realities of professional golf. A 21-year-old Greg Chalmers cashed one in his first pro tournament, yet wound up taking a loss for the week.
"I traveled from Perth, Australia (to the New Zealand Open) and spent $3-3,500, and I made about $410 after tax for finishing dead last. So yeah, that was my introduction to pro golf."
So what do players do with that first wave of income? Not as much as you might think. For many, the money goes toward expenses or simply in the bank.
"It's just onto the next one," Merrick said. "You've got to just keep flipping that money that you have."
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."