The Cactus Tour plays on amid praise—and criticism—during COVID-19 pandemic
As if there weren’t enough methods of torture in golf, self-inflicted and otherwise, there’s a new source of frustration in the age of the coronavirus, accompanied by a catchy little term for it: foamed.
Usage: “I hit a great putt on the 14th hole today, but got foamed!”
Mike Brown laughs about it. He is the one-man enterprise who operates the Cactus Tour professional women’s mini-tour in the Southwest, and he’s now heard the lament more often than he can count.
Taking precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic while staging tournaments—to the consternation of some—Brown has followed the practice of other golf courses in the country by inserting cut-down foam into the bottom of the cup so players don’t have to reach far into the hole to retrieve their ball. The trouble is, if the foam sits a bit too high, a ball can actually drop into the cup and pop out.
It’s golf’s new trampoline effect.
“I think it’s the moms who coined the phrase,” Brown said on the phone. “I had one mother say her daughter got ‘foamed’ four times. I told her, ‘I hope she was using protection.’ ”
But seriously, folks.
Brown, who admits to using some colorful language and having a twisted sense of humor, is currently teetering between giddy satisfaction and loopy exhaustion. Ten years ago, he purchased the rights to the Cactus Tour and has been staging about 30 events a year at desert locales in Arizona, California and Nevada.
You wouldn’t recognize most of the names, and the purses are decidedly mini—usually $2,000 to $3,000 to the winner of a 54-hole tournament, with about half the players in pro field getting at least their $577 entry fee back. (Close to 50 percent of recent fields have been amateurs, who pay $206 to enter if they are Cactus members.)
“I know my place,” Brown said. “We’re a steppingstone for these girls. Nothing more, nothing less. They’re chasing their dreams."
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At a time when the top two U.S. women’s professional tours, the LPGA and Symetra Tour, have put tournaments on hold, and no significant amateur golf is being played, Brown has never been busier or his tour more in the spotlight. His counterparts at the Outlaw Tour, the men’s version of the Cactus that also plays in Arizona, are saying the same thing.
“Never in my wildest imagination could I have seen this mini-tour getting this much attention,” Brown said.
With strong demand from players, Brown has added three tournaments already to the schedule, with more on the way. Usually, by this time in the season, Brown is winding down to take a break and has about a dozen players in the field. But he’s approaching nine straight weeks of play, and this week there were 40 golfers competing at Longbow Golf Club in Mesa, where, even for Arizona, it’s been unseasonably toasty in April, with the temperature for Wednesday’s final round reaching 102.
Brown said he’s heard expressions of gratitude from players and their families while facing the wrath of some in the media and public for staging events at a time when large portions of America are locked down amid a heavy emotional and financial toll.
This past week’s Cactus event was the fifth played since President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency on March 13. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued stay-at-home orders on March 31, but designated golf as an “essential” business. Some Arizona courses chose to close, but most have remained open. Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and is the fourth largest county in the country with 4.4 million residents, has experienced a relatively low number of coronavirus cases—3,723 confirmed as of Thursday, with 140 deaths.
Brown said no Cactus Tour players have reported testing positive for COVID-19.
“I had a lady write me when we played in Sun City saying that I was out there killing people,” Brown said. “That day I had 17 girls playing. There were 291 rounds of golf played on the same course that day. There are just some people who are going to bash it.
“I had some people come from California and their friends thought it was horrible that they were allowing their daughter to play while they had to sit at home and do nothing. That’s the point: You don’t have to do that; you choose to. Last time I looked there wasn’t a gate at the border.”
Asked further about the comments and publicity, Brown said: “It’s been more good than bad. The fact that courses are open and we’re adhering to the rules … I say this all of the time: There’s less chance of you being exposed out here than in a Walmart or Costco. I’ve decided to do what I do as long as I can and work through this.”
Players confirmed in interviews for this story that the Cactus has adhered to strict social-distancing standards. Golfers can use carts, but not ride together. They can’t touch the flagsticks, there is foam in the cups and no rakes in the bunkers. They can buy food in the clubhouse and take it outside, but otherwise there is no pre- or post-round socializing.
Sarah Burnham, a 24-year-old Michigan State alum who was looking forward to her second year on the LPGA in 2020, fortuitously moved to Arizona just weeks before the coronavirus outbreak, and she expressed few qualms about playing the Cactus Tour.
“I wasn’t really too concerned,” Burnham said. “We’ve got the foam in the cups and the other precautions. I carry Purell [hand sanitizer] and stuff, and I’m a little more cautious.
“I don’t feel like we or [Brown] are doing anything wrong [by playing],” she added. “The golf courses are open, and [Brown] is a one-man show. It’s not like he has all of these people out there running it. I was all in for him continuing to play the Cactus Tour.”
Haley Moore, who has seen much of her rookie LPGA season wiped out with tournament cancellations, has been traveling back and forth to Arizona from her home in Escondido, Calif., and staying in either friends’ homes or Airbnb rentals. She said she received a critical social-media post from one friend because she’s playing, but added, “I ignored it. Everyone has their side. I feel like our sport is one of the best at being able to social distance.”
The upside for Burnham and Moore competing on the Cactus this spring has shown in their play. Moore, the circuit’s 2019 season money champion, won in Sun City on April 2, and Burnham won twice in a three-week span. Burnham got a roll of toilet paper among her prizes for the first one, and she pulled off the second victory in spectacular fashion, making an eagle from two feet on the last hole to edge Symetra Tour player Britney Yada, also a two-time Cactus winner this season.
“All that pressure, it was nerve-wracking,” Burnham said. “Even though this was the Cactus Tour, it felt like an LPGA event. You’re not going to get the same feeling in practice.”
Burnham, by the way, has spent some of her coronavirus downtime working as a shopper at grocery stories for people who make online orders. “I had to do something to not go insane,” she said with a laugh.
With a smattering of LPGA and Symetra Tour veterans getting competitive reps in—eight-time LPGA winner Anna Nordqvist shot 15 under at Moon Valley for a victory in late March—the Cactus Tour record book is being shredded. Less than two weeks ago, Sophia Popov shot an 11-under-par 61 in the opening round at Las Colinas in Queen Creek, Ariz., and backed that up with 69-64, winning by nine shots at 22 under.
“Obliterated our scoring record!” said Brown, noting that in the first 15 years of the tour, four players reached the previous best mark of 17 under.
The record lasted all of seven days. This week, Mina Harigae, a 30-year-old former U.S. Public Links champion who has played 11 seasons on the LPGA, scorched Longbow with a 54-hole total of 24 under with rounds of 63-64-65. Popov was second, nine shots back.
On the morning after, Harigae said she couldn’t remember ever going so low in three consecutive rounds.
“I just felt like I was doing anything I wanted to do,” she said.
Harigae, who lives in Gilbert, Ariz., had something of a home-course advantage as a regular at Longbow since winning there in her AJGA days. Her coach, Jeff Fisher, also is based there. Harigae, who has six Cactus Tour wins in the last four years, had only played in one previous event on the tour this spring, but decided to compete at Longbow because, “emotionally, I was kind of in a funk.”
“I was feeling no motivation,” she said. “I didn't know if we were going to start in June [now July], and even if we did, that's so far away. I played Longbow to give me a change of pace, hoping it would give me some juices flowing. It actually did, so I'm glad I played.”
Brown observed, “I’ve had some people say, 'I can’t believe you're letting these LPGA players take money from the Cactus Tour girls.’ These Cactus Tour girls need to learn how to compete.”
One other thing Brown never saw coming: People making wagers on the Cactus Tour. Odds are being posted and sports books are taking bets from gamblers obviously desperate for any kind of sports action beyond horse racing.
Moore was stunned at first to hear that people were laying down cash on her. The University of Arizona alum who won a national team title with the Wildcats in 2018 has been among the golfers most favored in the odds.
“It’s, like, oh my gosh, we’re getting bet on in Vegas!” Moore said. “I think that motivates us. We could make people a lot of money or if we play like crap, they could lose a lot! It’s crazy.”
There isn’t much that’s not crazy about these times, golf or otherwise.