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Life on the fringes

How Scottsdale became the underworld of professional golf

Only here can the wannabes compete against PGA Tour players on a public par-3 course
December 19, 2023

It’s a desert town paved over the cracks of golf’s caste system. Only in Scottsdale can the wannabes compete against PGA Tour players on a public par-3 course—the only requisites for entry are a few bucks and an ability to run your mouth, preferably with a drink in hand. Away from the Papago Shootout, you can find the hopefuls working as caddies at upscale joints like Whisper Rock, Estancia and Silverleaf. If you want to see them pursuing their dreams, visit the practice facility at Talking Stick Resort. Not many ranges in this country can rival the talent here, particularly in the fall before Q school. The parking lot is full of Corollas, Civics and beat-to-hell Jeeps. The iron grooves are worn and the golf bags weathered. These players don’t have the accouterments of their occupation because depending on the day that occupation is up for interpretation.

“[A lot of] the guys out here have the pieces to the puzzle,” says Andre Metzger, a veteran of the mini-tour life. “The hard part is that the pieces are always scattered, or one piece is missing. That one missing piece can be the difference in making it.” That’s why they are in Scottsdale: This town gives them the best chance to make those pieces fit.

Reigning Masters champion Jon Rahm and U.S. Open winner Wyndham Clark live in Scottsdale, as do Max Homa and Joel Dahmen, two of the most popular players in the game. Past major winners Tom Lehman and Geoff Ogilvy do, too. LIV Golf’s Paul Casey, Pat Perez and Bubba Watson have homes in the area, and Phil Mickelson is associated as a member, designer or owner of multiple golf properties. In all, about two dozen players with PGA Tour cards populate the area alongside hundreds of golfers on developmental tours struggling to make it to the next level.

This didn’t happen overnight. A town of no more than 2,000 people when it was incorporated in 1951, Scottsdale blossomed as planners and the United States Army Corps of Engineers studied the infrastructure of Northeastern cities to learn from their mistakes. The upshot was a grid system with water service reaching into the desert, service that was supposed to be for residential properties but was conducive to building and maintaining golf courses. One of those first courses was Desert Highlands, which hosted the inaugural Skins Game in 1983 featuring Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Gary Player. It’s hard to overstate the reach of the Skins Game in that era. In its first years of existence the Skins Game’s average weekend rating beat the U.S. Open’s. Millions tuned in on Thanksgiving to see the warm weather and beautiful vistas of Scottsdale, scenes that looked very appealing to those stuck in cold climates during the winter.

TPC Scottsdale, a venue built and operated by the PGA Tour for the Phoenix Open, played a key role, too. Courses in the TPC network allow players with status on PGA Tour affiliated mini-tours free access to their practice facilities. Players competing at the Phoenix Open became enamored with the region, enticed by the then-cheap cost of living and near-perfect weather. About that time, Arizona State University in nearby Tempe developed one of the best golf programs in the country, introducing fledgling stars to the town.

Word spread through the tour ranks, and Scottsdale communities began to cater to golf’s best, understanding the magnetism a tour pro brings to a club. In turn those clubs conferred a level of privacy and normalcy that Florida and Texas often do not; already plush with retired athletes, the unspoken acknowledgment in town is that celebrities enjoy Scottsdale because they’re not treated as celebrities. This fusion led to the creation of oases like Whisper Rock (Mickelson’s first-designed course), Silverleaf and Estancia.

Golf is a copycat sport, and endeavoring pros took notice. Young players with PGA Tour aspirations moved to Scottsdale, first during the fall and winter months and then year-round. Until a few years ago Talking Stick had a $50 monthly deal for unlimited balls with $25 tee times after 3. The hundreds of courses needed staffing, so players took jobs in the golf shop or caddie barn in exchange for free or discounted golf. Independent leagues like the Cactus and Asher Tours sprang up, as a wealth of male and female players needed a place to compete outside of qualifying events, and players began running their own competitions against each other to keep their games sharp. Eventually, some of those games became their own attractions, to the point where the Korn Ferry Tour and even some PGA Tour players would compete.

Papago Golf Course, which is home to Arizona State’s golf complex, breaks the desert-golf stereotype. It’s long, tight and tough. It’s partly what attracts so many good golfers and produces some of the fiercest competition anywhere. “I remember playing in a bunch of local games when I first got out here. Papago is another level,” says Metzger, who has played on numerous tours. “I remember going up to the Dakotas Tour, and in the first event I finished fifth. I thought, Compared to [back in Scottsdale], this is easy.”

The Papago game received notoriety this year thanks to Homa: After winning the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open and its $1.5-million prize, Homa teed it up at the muny’s Monday skins contest. “I’m on the range, and next to me is a guy in a sweatshirt with a beard and a Dodgers cap. I’m thinking, No way that’s Max; I just watched him beat everybody at Torrey Pines,” says Jon Chaffee, a Papago regular. “Then I see the swing, and I go, Yeah, that’s Max.” Homa shot 67, good enough for low gross and its $400 pot.

At Mountain Shadows Resort, PGA Tour players compete in games on a par-3 course where the longest hole is just under 200 yards, and the shortest is 55. The game is run by former pro and current caddie Mike Glennie, 37, and he makes sure the buy-ins aren’t extravagant, ranging from $20 to $30.

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Dylan Healey, 29, has played on the Korn Ferry, LatinoAmerica and China tours. In 2023, he made $17,000 in 10 events playing in Canada.

“We want guys competing, but we also want to keep it fun,” Glennie says. “Guys are going to be messing around, letting loose, talking trash and playing in fivesomes.”

Glennie wants the field to play in 2:40 or less. On paper that might strike an intramural tone, but the Mountain Shadows game draws regular tour pros like Dahmen, Adam Hadwin, Brandon Harkins and Jimmy Gunn. Rising star Brady Calkins often takes the low-gross game—seven to nine under for 18—but he can never seem to win a skin. “One time Brady made a hole-in-one,” Glennie says, “and I had to break it to him that someone made an ace a few groups before.” This underlines the depth of the competition, which is why so many good players flock to it, but Glennie also keeps spots open for anyone, regardless of handicap. Often visitors will hit Glennie up on Instagram, asking to play, and Glennie abides. Two of his regulars are a married couple in their late 50s. “The only thing we have in common is a love of golf,” Glennie says. Oh, and gambling. “Well, we are a bunch of degenerates,” Glennie adds.

Most of the games around town don’t play for huge sums. Much of it is for B and C: beer and Chipotle money. Should someone want to play for big money, those games are around, but for the most part it’s not about that. “Even if it’s a couple of bucks, it gives you pressure, something to play for,” says Jhared Hack, 34, a player with Korn Ferry Tour status who once shot a 57 at Las Vegas Golf Club. “You’re playing against people you go up against at qualifiers. It’s as good a test as any.”

‘THAT ONE MISSING PIECE CAN BE THE DIFFERENCE IN MAKING IT.’ THAT’S WHY THEY ARE IN SCOTTSDALE.

Glennie says he’s always surprised how much a little bit of money means to players who don’t need it. “One guy, fresh off making just less than a million on tour, wins a little more than $80 one week,” Glennie says. “I do all cash, no Venmos. This guy had to leave the game early, so once he found out, I got a call. ‘Hey, I’m at TPC; any chance you can drop off the money?’ Dude, you just banked a million, and you’re worried about this? It’s cool, though, because it reveals the honor and joy they play for, even in stakes as little as this.”

Most players without status on a tour will play two to three games in a week and fill the rest of their time with practice or work. The games are the fulcrum of their existence, and the post-round libations serve as a respite, where players trade stories about bad breaks and worse travel. If the clubhouse shoos them away, the Old Town district has plenty of bars with cheap drinks to keep the festivities going.

“Some guys do their own thing, but this is such a unique lifestyle that it becomes a brotherhood,” Hack says. “These are the people that understand you.”

Adds Mark Baldwin, a journeyman pro and Scottsdale resident, “You would think it would make for a cutthroat environment, but most players would do anything to help their fellow players out. Guys are there for each other.”

Scottsdale has become golf's equivalent of Hollywood, a place where the untouchable feels attainable. No, these players don’t see Mickelson, Homa or Rahm and think they are equals. The player who gives others hope is Kevin Streelman, a guy who looks more like the dad in charge of the neighborhood barbecue than an athlete. Streelman was the third man on a mediocre Duke golf team. He put 200,000 miles on his mom’s Nissan Altima traversing the Dakotas Tour. He applied for an assistant coaching job at Duke and was turned down. He was a legend on mini-tour circuits like the Hooters and Gateway Tours but had to supplement that income by caddieing at Whisper Rock. He birdied the final four holes just to make it to the second stage of Q school in 2007, and when he finally made it to the PGA Tour, he needed 153 starts before his first victory at age 34. Streelman eventually returned to Whisper Rock as a member and won its club championship five years after working there. He’s hung around the tour for 16 seasons and earned more than $26 million. He still competes in most of the local games and has an avuncular relationship with the 30-and-younger crowd.

“He’s someone who was on the bottom of the food chain,” Metzger says of Streelman. “He worked for everything he got. I say this with respect, but when you play against him, it’s not like he’s hitting 350-yard drives. He flushes his irons, but a lot of players out here do that. He has a game that’s not dissimilar to the game we play.”

METZGER IS AWARE THAT HE’S 10 YEARS PAST THE AGE WHEN HE THOUGHT HE WOULD HANG IT UP.

Another late bloomer is Scottsdale resident Scott Harrington, who reached the PGA Tour for the first time at 38. The most recent example is Eric Cole, who spent more than a decade grinding it out on the mini-tours, reaching the PGA Tour this season at 34. In his rookie year Cole has made nearly $5 million and is ranked inside the world’s top 60. “Cole was good, really good,” Metzger says. “But you never looked at him and thought, Oh, yeah, he’s a no-doubt tour star. He was just one of the guys because everyone is really good.”

These players are “the sell,” and there is no shortage of those willing to buy in. In Scottsdale, the Hollywood proverb holds true: Many will come, but only a few will make it.

It costs so much to compete for so little. That’s professional golf for those outside the PGA Tour’s walls. The expenditures are what you would expect: travel, lodging, food, tournament fees, practice fees and non-golf bills. The devil is how quickly they add up. “A lot of mini-tour events cost $1,200 to enter, and the winner gets just $5,000, sometimes as low as $3,000,” Glennie says. “You’ll usually get a practice round in. You’re usually staying at a hotel. You got to get to that town, got to eat. If you don’t win, you don’t break even. Miss a few cuts in a row, and you can be in the hole $10,000 within two months.”

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PGA Tour players and amateurs alike compete in the par-3 contest at Mountain Shadows. Just be sure you can afford to gamble.

A few good players have the financial backing of country club benefactors. Attempting to play at the highest levels of golf without this assistance is very difficult. It’s one of the many reasons why so many in Scottsdale work at courses. Discounted rates (or free access to the course and practice facility) are the only way they can afford to play. For years one route was to caddie at one of the cosmopolitan clubs, hoping to build a strong enough rapport with wealthy clients who were happy to finance their dreams. However, clubs picked up on this scheme and have cracked down on the practice in recent years after one notable benefactor believed he was being taken advantage of. The punishment isn’t only a reprimand from management: caddies and bag boys have been fired for attempting to secure patronage on club grounds.

Metzger started delivering pizzas when he moved to Scottsdale. Hack drives for a car service. Calkins has done construction. Landscaping and pool service are popular jobs with too many bartenders, servers and telemarketers to count. Many will go on Craigslist or Facebook and offer to give lessons. At one point Glennie worked four jobs at the same time. Byron Meth, who is a weekly presence at the Mountain Shadows game, is vice president of sales at a solar power company. The zealous will recognize Meth as the final winner of the now defunct U.S. Amateur Public Links, a victory that earned him a spot at the 2015 Masters. That’s why, after insisting the weekly money games are not about the money, players will eventually concede that the money doesn’t hurt. It may just be a few hundred bucks, but that could be a food stipend for the month. “When you’re thinking about making the tour as a kid, driving strangers around for $100 during a convention week was not what you envisioned,” Hack says. “You have to swallow your pride, but a lot of guys do it. It’s a good test. How bad do you want it, and to what lengths are you willing to go?”

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In Scottsdale, Andre Metzger is something of a golfing god. He has been player of the year on circuits most have never heard of, and he has almost 50 career wins across these tours. Ask anyone on the Scottsdale scene about Metzger, and the response is inevitably, “Legend.”

“I hate admitting this, but when I’m at a tournament and see Andre, it’s like, Ah, damn, Andre’s here,” Hack says, laughing. “To win, you know you have to go through him.”

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“This is such a unique lifestyle that it becomes a brotherhood,” says Jhared Hack, who recently medaled at a first-stage Q school site.

Hack is pretty good, too, a past winner of the Arizona Open. Calkins’ star is maybe as bright as any. The 28-year-old has cultivated a mystique around his ability to balance his side jobs and golf. An often-told story is Calkins shutting down the bar at a Dakotas Tour event, then waking up three hours later to shoot a course-record 62.

Even the non-players are still players. Carson Kemp is the owner and head trainer of Motionlab, a gym that specializes in golf fitness. Kemp is something of a golf-pro whisperer, working with Dahmen, Mark Hubbard, Chez Reavie, J.J. Spaun and three-time LPGA major winner Anna Nordqvist. He also works with juniors and golf-crazed amateurs, and it’s not uncommon to see all the groups together in one of Kemp’s training classes.

“Hey, I don’t care if you’re famous or rich or some 12-handicapper just trying to save a few strokes in your Thursday game,” Kemp says. “If you have the golf bug, you got my attention.” That includes Kemp himself. He looks more like the guy who comes knocking at your door when rent is due than a golfer, but despite picking the game up late, he has turned himself into a great amateur player who is more than capable of taking money from his tour-pro clients.

Chaffee is a Papago regular. He once played on the PGA Tour but could not square with the rhythms of tour life, deciding to transition to the more stable confines of commercial real estate 40 years ago. At 67, he still competes with the up-and-comers and plays from the tips at Papago at 7,500 yards. He routinely breaks par. “It’s a good way to measure yourself,” Chaffee says. “Yeah, they’re better than me, but once you get a taste for competition, it’s hard to give it up.”

In other sports, the athlete is cut, his or her chances run out, and he or she has nowhere else to go. In golf, for those with financial mobility and fortitude, those chances run in perpetuity. It’s part of the game’s beauty, yet there is an underside. No one wants to be 50, wondering where life went. When Metzger was 29, he gave himself to 32—what he figured was the average age of PGA Tour players—to reach a level with status and security. He’s now 41. “I’ve probably come close to quitting three times in the past 12 years,” Metzger says, “but I always keep coming back.”

Metzger is married with kids. Because of family responsibilities he doesn’t play as many games as other Scottsdale players, and a few days a week are dedicated solely to family responsibilities like dropping the children off at school or preparing meals. Metzger knows firsthand how hard it is to let the dream go. His wife, Kim Kolb, was once a highly touted mini-tour player whose career ended abruptly because of injury. He knows what he’s trying to do has a shelf life, even as that expiration date continues to be pushed back.

Earlier this year Metzger Monday qualified into the WM Phoenix Open, and he believes he is playing the best golf of his life. He also knows that the top of the money list is filled with more players in their 20s than in their 30s. He understands the changing landscape of professional golf has protected the game’s upper class while further limiting the avenues to break through.

Glennie is another player on the fringe. In the Papago event Homa won, Glennie finished right behind him. He came close to beating a player who had outscored 155 PGA Tour players days before, but Glennie knows he wasn’t really that close. To Glennie, it’s the days when he falls short of playing his best that are the real barometer. “People who I caddie for, they would tell me, ‘Man, you’re better than some of the pros!’ I don’t say this to brag, but, yeah, I can be,” Glennie says, “but a lot of people can be. You have to come to peace with that. Maybe you’re not as special as you think.”

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Scottsdale’s population growth and rising living costs have started to squeeze out some players trying to ascend to the PGA Tour.

Glennie was approaching his mid-30s. He had bills to pay and a marriage he wanted to start. He realized the golf lifestyle he loved was putting the rest of his life on pause. He still plays in games and tries out for a qualifier or two but only to satisfy his competitive appetite. Caddieing, where he can get $300 to $500 a bag at certain clubs, is now his full-time profession. “You can convince yourself you’re almost there,” he says. “It comes down to confidence and belief, but it also comes down to a lot of things going your way. At my age, I didn’t want to keep waiting for things to break my way.”

An exodus is coming. "Compared to just three years ago, I feel like what guys expect to what they are finding has shifted,” Baldwin says. The Phoenix metro area was the fastest-growing region in the United States during the past decade, according to the 2020 census. That growth has been amplified since the pandemic. Scottsdale is part of that population ascent. Its demographics are changing, too. According to Henley & Partner’s 2023 wealth report, Scottsdale ranked third on the fastest-growing cities for millionaires. Accordingly, the cost of living has skyrocketed. What used to be a cost-efficient community now runs 13 percent higher than the national average. Those already tight budgets of mini-tour players can stand only so much. The nationwide golf boom hasn’t helped, either. With many amateurs returning to the game or discovering it, the upshot means fewer and more expensive tee times. “Just a few years ago, a lot of courses begged to hold a mini-tour event. It guaranteed 60, 80 spots at $50 a head,” Baldwin says. “Now, most courses want nothing to do with events.”

Scottsdale has also become a new epicenter for bachelor parties, which is good for the local economy but not so much for players looking for a weekend tee time or who are seeing their rentals increase because of Airbnb housing options. Even TPC Scottsdale, thanks to the WM Phoenix Open, draws so much tourist interest that the club has restricted access to areas that the professionals use. Some have left town, with many looking toward Las Vegas. Some players see the rising costs and shrinking playing opportunities as a sign it’s time to pack it in. “From afar,” Metzger says, “I’m sure people wonder why we can’t let go.”

Heading into 2024, Metzger has just conditional status on the Korn Ferry Tour. He’s aware he’s 10 years past the age when he thought he would hang it up, but Q school is just around the corner, and Metzger thinks he has figured out how to make the pieces fit.

“Once you’re in it, and the juices are flowing, it’s hard to kick,” Metzger says. “It’s the best feeling in the world. Everything starts making sense.”

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