‘We have bills to pay’: Outlaw Tour goes on as rest of golf world stands still

For professional golfers, the first week of April is supposed to bring azaleas and a Green Jacket. This year, it brings social distancing and Lysol wipes.

In what is supposed to be professional golf’s biggest week of the season, the irony isn’t lost on the players of the Outlaw Tour that while the best players in the world were supposed to be playing The Masters, it was the 50 or so golfers teeing it up at an event in Arizona that had the golf world talking.

The Outlaw Tour, a mini-tour based out of Phoenix, sees professionals try to hone their craft before playing on the Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada or any of the other lower-tiered tours below the PGA Tour. They try to get in some reps and if they capture lightning in a bottle, they might win a few thousand dollars in a three-day event.

Since Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has said in an executive order that golf courses have been listed as an essential business in the state, the Outlaw Tour show goes on.

“As a golfer it cuts deep not being able to watch The Masters, and it’s an eerie feeling that the Outlaw Tour is the only tour that’s operating right now, but I feel appreciative I have a place to play,” said Riley Wheeldon of Comox, B.C., by phone after he finished fifth at the Orange Tree Classic, an event that wrapped up April 9. “And as long as we’re being as safe as we can then it’s a nice return to normalcy when nothing else is really normal right now.”

Wheeldon leads the Outlaw Tour’s money list this season with more than US$17,000 in winnings. He was recently engaged and says he and his fiancée, Erica, have a date set in September for their wedding. He planned for it to take place after the Mackenzie Tour season wraps up, but now he thinks he’ll have to miss an event for their nuptials.

Despite daily health updates showing the U.S. has the most COVID-19 cases in the world, Wheeldon says the reason he’s still out there teeing it up at golf events is simple.

“We’re doing as much as we can to follow all the guidelines and at the end of the day this is all of our jobs,” he said. “We have bills to pay.”

While Wheeldon has never been a PGA Tour member, this week’s Outlaw Tour event attracted a few golfers who had made it to golf’s biggest stage – including Alex Cejka, a PGA Tour winner, and Andrew Yun, who had PGA Tour status in 2018.

Yun, from Tacoma, Wash., just became a father for the first time six months ago. This week’s event on the Outlaw Tour was the first one he played in and he was impressed with the precautions Tour organizers took – there were no rakes in the bunkers (you can pick your ball up and make your own lie), and no one is taking the flagsticks out of the cup. Everyone walks.

Yun, who finished T7, said with his young son at home he wouldn’t be out there playing if he didn’t feel safe.

“It’s been pretty normal, all things considered. We’re not giving each other high fives or anything,” said Yun in a moment of levity.

“It’s not a bad thing, it is our job. There are so many people who have filed for unemployment and this, being our job, we kind of have to do it or we’d be unemployed as well. It’s a way for us to not just compete but make money as well.”

Outlaw Tour tee blocks. (Photo: Outlaw Tour)

Another Canadian, Kaleb Gorbahn, just graduated in 2018 and hasn’t quite got his footing in the pro game quite yet. He finished 15th this week and earned $0 for his efforts – such is mini-tour golf, where guys put up $875 as an entry fee and after the organizers take their fees, golfers play for the rest. You earn cash if you finish in the top 30 per cent of the field.

He said some of the changes to the course setup have been jarring (putting with the flagstick in gives him the “heebie-jeebies,” he said) but overall the organizers and the golf courses are doing their best.

“I’m just happy to be playing and have a somewhat normal life. To be able to actually plan to play in a couple of events… they are the only events I’m guaranteed to play in,” said Gorbahn, who signed up for the Mackenzie Tour Qualifying Tournament in British Columbia at the end of the month before it got postponed.

Gorbahn, who is renting a room from a family friend in Maricopa, Ariz., says it’s “kind of crazy” the attention the Outlaw Tour has gotten – both positive and negative.

It is one of the very few professional sports leagues still happening, so play on the Outlaw Tour has caught the eye of Las Vegas, which Gorbahn said is “really funny.” Gorbahn was 30/1 to win last week, per GolfOdds.com, while Wheeldon was 10/1, and Yun was 8/1. Eventual winner Carson Roberts, who topped the field by six, was 18/1.

A rules controversy that resulted in 14 players getting disqualified two weeks ago made national sports headlines, though. And of course, there’s the lingering question of well, why are you still out here while most of the nation – and the world at large – is on lockdown?

For Gorbahn, he says he feels safer at an Outlaw Tour event than he does at a grocery store. He sees fewer people on the course, and they are spread out more.

Since golf is still allowed by law in the state, they will press on.

And as Gorbahn, Yun and Wheeldon all confirm: they have to make money somehow, despite what’s going on around them.

“You can’t go anywhere without someone talking about it,” said Wheeldon of COVID-19. “But it’s nice to zone in before your shot and try not to think of anything else except try to do our job.”

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