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Journeys

This PGA Tour rookie drove for Uber, then finally got his tour card

December 08, 2021
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Photograph by Jensen Larson

I'm 33, not the youngest PGA Tour rookie. I can’t play as many weeks in a row as the younger guys. I applaud the heck out of them. They deserve everything they’ve got, but I don’t know if they’ve felt a lot of defeat. When I have a five- or six-week stretch where things don’t go well, I don’t panic. I’ve been playing professionally for 11 years. There isn’t a lot I haven’t seen.

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I grew up in Louisville playing public courses with my dad and granddad. At my first high school practice, I pulled a ball out of my pocket to putt with that was different from the one I’d been playing because my granddad did that. My teammate was like, “What are you doing?” I realized I didn’t know the rules.

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I won local tournaments but didn’t know national junior tournaments existed. I first broke par my junior year. I thought, If I’m shooting around par, I’m going to Wake Forest or Arizona State, and then turning pro. I wrote letters to those schools but never heard back. I got a call from Murray State. It was my best offer. I’m so happy I went there.

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We drove everywhere, sometimes for 15 hours. I rode shotgun. Coach would have to pull over because of leg cramps. He’s on the side of the road doing stretches, and we’re all in the van laughing so hard we’re crying.

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I turned pro after I graduated in 2010. In my first pro event, I had a putt for $2,000. I’d never seen that kind of money. By the time I was done with it, I was putting for $800. Four-putting from five feet was a nice welcome to pro golf.

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Jared Wolfe celebrates locking up his card at the 2021 Korn Ferry Tour Championship with his daughter, Khloe Marie.

James Gilbert

My first three years I played the Hooters Carolina winter series. It was 30 to 40 guys every week, frozen greens, golf carts with heaters. In the summer I played the Hooters Tour. I had a few people help me with entry fees. I lived with my parents. They took care of my living expenses. I won three winter series events, making just enough to not lose a ton. My dad’s retired law enforcement, and my mom’s a retired teacher. It wasn’t like I could afford to play 40 events a year and not make any money.

‘I chipped in with whatever I won playing and from driving Uber.’

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I finally got Korn Ferry status in 2014, but we couldn’t afford that tour. I found an angel investor. My caddie introduced us and vouched for me. He wanted me to experience the tour without worrying about being able to afford a Holiday Inn. I made only two cuts, but I learned a lot. He’s still a huge help now.

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The courses were much harder and the competition deeper. I had never played in front of TV cameras, I didn’t know the rough could be so penalizing, and I’d never seen fans before. I didn’t know how to handle it. I lost my status and went to the Mackenzie Tour. I was making like $500 and finishing 60th. I had to take some time off when a skin cancer scare left me with stitches on my neck that I had to keep out of the sun. I drove Uber and Uber Eats for some cash and kept it up after I healed.

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When my wife and I first got together, I was home for four weeks, gone for one. But during our first year of marriage, I was home for one, gone for four. International phone plans were $150 a month then. We struggled to figure out when to talk. She couldn’t travel because we didn’t have any money. She was a nanny, and I chipped in with whatever I won playing and from driving Uber. It was a huge learning curve. We got five years of marriage experience in one year.

The mini-tours teach you how to make birdies. But I didn’t know how to make pars when I needed to. We moved to Jacksonville, and I started practicing at TPC Sawgrass, where a lot of tour players hang out. I played in money games, losing $20, $50, $100 a day. I had to figure out how to chip, putt and play out of Bermuda grass. I was around better coaches and players. I asked for help.

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I was on PGA Tour Latinoamérica in 2019 and gone seven of the first 11 weeks of our daughter’s life. When I got back, my wife and I talked. I didn’t want to be gone. We were miserable and agreed that if we didn’t stay on the Korn Ferry that year or move up, I was done trying to make it. I felt a lot of clarity.

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I was guaranteed only four starts on the Korn Ferry in 2020. I won the second event. I thought, Just a couple more cuts, and we’re going to get our PGA Tour card. Then COVID hit. I didn’t know when I’d be playing again. I got a call from a buddy to do some medical sales. We were selling tests for the flu, strep and COVID. I did it for six weeks. It was great to get the paycheck, but I don’t want to do anything other than play golf.

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Our points carried over from 2020 into 2021. I was in a good spot but needed to keep scoring points. When we came back, I played two tournaments and took a week off. People thought I was crazy. We’d just had eight weeks off. I went to Colorado and finished 10th. Instead of finishing 40th, 40th, 40th, I finished MC, sixth and 10th. As for points and money, I made the right decision.

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The last few weeks of the season, I was practically guaranteed my card. But I didn’t want anyone to congratulate me. I know how quickly it can fall apart. When I finally had the card in my hands, my wife and daughter were there, along with my in-laws, my dad and some host families I’d stayed with over the years. All the memories from the past 11 years as a pro and being a little kid playing golf came rushing back through my head. It was overwhelming. —WITH KEELY LEVINS