The term “golf pro” gets thrown around loosely these days.
In reality, you could decide to enter a tournament tomorrow as a professional, even if you don’t have any degree or playing experience. I would argue that a lot of high level amateurs could even beat a lot of “pros” on any given day.
But there is a big difference between a PGA Tour pro, a mini tour pro, a club pro, and a teaching instructor.
When it comes to being a professional in golf, you might be thinking,
- “Is it hard to become a golf pro?”
- “What are the different types of golf pros?”
- “What degree do you need to be a golf pro?”
Or, you might even wonder, “Is it too late to become a pro golfer?”
By the end of this post, you will understand what it takes to make it as a pro and more about working in the golf industry.
Let’s start by breaking down the types of golf professionals. In general, there are:
- Head Pros
- Teaching Pros
- Mini Tour Pros
- Non PGA Tour Professionals
- PGA Tour Professionals
Every golf club, private or public, has a head golf professional. These individuals run the operations of the golf course and make sure things run smoothly.
Here is the process to becoming a golf professional.
Before going straight from avid golfer to golf pro, you have to work your way up. The first step in the process is to complete the PGM Associate Program.
To become a member, everyone must:
- Pass a background check.
- Pass a written, qualifying test.
- Employed in an eligible position.
- Make it through the player ability test (PAT).
The written test is an overview of the game and requires a good amount of studying. It covers things like the rules of golf, history, and more. While the PGM also requires you to be employed in an eligible position (not necessarily in the golf industry). Examples include tournament director, hospitality, marketing, etc.
The hardest part of this process is the player ability test. The PAT is a 36-hole playing test where all your skills are tested in a one-day marathon of golf.
According to the PGA, “In order to pass the 36-hole PAT, you must achieve a 36-hole score within 15 shots of the course rating. For example, if the course rating is 72, the target score for the 36 holes would be 159 (72 x 2 – 144 +15 – 159).”
Less than 20% pass this test as nerves are high and let’s get real, it’s golf! Anything can happen.
After you become an assistant golf professional, then you can work your way up to head golf pro. There are more formal tests required and of course, golf clubs want you to gain experience for a few years as well.
Then, it comes down to finding the right gig, applying, nailing the interview process, and taking the reins as the head pro. From there, you can play in professional events, qualifiers, and even teach as well.
The next type of professional is known as a teaching pro. This may or may not be the same person at your local golf club. Some work full-time in the clubhouse, setting up tournaments, helping members, etc. and still teach too.
While other golf courses will have two different pros. One for the running of the club and one for the teaching side of the game.
A teaching professional has to go through the same process listed above. Additionally, they need to register for an apprentice position on the PGA website.
Then, they have to work through three levels in the PGA program and gain work experience as well. This can be earned through a college degree and working under a PGA professional.
Obviously, you also have to have a strong desire to help other golfers improve their game too. Being a teaching pro is much different from the operation side of things as you have to find clients, build relationships, and help them get results.
Also, just because you’re a head pro or teaching pro doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an elite player. Sure, you have to pass some playing tests and you won’t likely be a hack, but that doesn’t mean you can break par any given round.
While some pros definitely have a ton of game, a lot of them are solid players but don’t get out on the course a ton. Sadly, a lot of guys are so busy working and teaching, they don’t get much time to work on their own game. Or, they’re so “golfed out” that they don’t feel like hanging around their workplace much more than they need to.
The next type of golf professionals are known as mini-tour players. Being a mini tour pro doesn’t require any degree, apprenticeship, or formal training. Instead, all you have to do is have a low handicap and register for an event near you.
Mini tours aren’t in every part of the country and tend to be in major cities to attract more golfers. Some of the places include:
- North Dakota
Depending on the tour, sometimes amateurs are allowed to compete and instead of winning money, they get credit or gift cards. If you’re an amateur golfer who wants to make it to the big leagues, mini tours are a great way to gain experience.
The next step up from the mini tours are professional golfers who compete on tours below the PGA Tour. These events are much larger than mini tour events and offer much bigger payouts as well.
Some examples include the Mackenzie Tour, PGA Tour China, Latin American Tour, and the Korn Ferry Tour.
The final set of pros are professional golfers who competed on golf’s biggest stage, the PGA Tour. The best male competitors in the world compete on the PGA Tour. It’s the coverage that most watch each weekend and is the most elite players on the planet.
Did you know that the PGA Tour only has 125 full-time players each year?
That’s right, of all the thousands of highly qualified golfers, only 125 have full-time playing privileges on the PGA Tour. While only 125 have full-time playing privileges, there are hundreds more that compete based on past exemptions and sponsor exemptions too.
For example, a player might lose his PGA Tour card one year but still have part-time privileges based on past exemptions. Or, a player could get a sponsor’s exemption to compete as well in certain events too.
Now that you have a better understanding of the different types of pros, let’s go through the process of becoming a PGA Tour professional. For so many players, this is the ultimate dream come true. It’s why so many players grind for years and in many cases, decades to make it on the biggest stage in the world.
But I’ll be the first to say, it’s not an easy path… far from it.
I know because I quit my corporate job in 2017 at 29 years old to chase the pro golf dream. I knew I was late to the party at nearly 30 years old, but I figured my dreams were worth a shot.
In the past few years, I’ve learned so much about the process and want to share the exact steps that it takes. Similar to becoming an elite player in any sport like basketball, baseball or football, there are only so many spots available.
For example, in the NFL, there are only 32 quarterback positions. With golf, there are only 125 spots that thousands of players want.
While the rest of the highly skilled players compete on smaller tours like the PGA Latin America, Canadian Tour, and Korn Ferry Tour.
Here is the step-by-step process to go from amateur golfer to PGA Tour player.
You might be thinking, duh, of course. But seriously, the more my game improves, the more I realize how far it is from PGA Tour form.
Here’s the thing, golf is wildly competitive and people are starting this game younger and younger. It’s up to you to have the discipline to find a coach, work endlessly on all parts of your game, avoid injuries, and not burn out. As you will see, this is easier said than done.
Once your game feels solid in friendly competition, it’s time to register for a formal tournament. For example, in Arizona, I regularly compete through the Arizona Golf Association. Each state has something like this and makes it easy for golfers who want formal competitions to compete.
Each tournament is slightly different from the others. The venues change frequently, total cost varies, total number of days, and some have cuts as well. You want to confirm this before enrolling in every tournament.
Aside from local amateur tournaments, you can also join USGA events. These include tournaments such as the US Open, US Amateur, US Mid-Am, and US 4-Ball among others.
These tournaments bring the best players in the world together to compete at a national level. While some players are exempt from qualifying, most golfers need to go through local qualifying to make it to these prestigious tournaments.
For example, if you want to compete in the US Amateur, you need to compete in a local qualifier first. These are 36 hole events where only 2-4 (or so) players move on to the big event out of a field of 100 guys.
Once you get to the US AM, then there is a stroke play 36 hole event with a cut. After that, the match play portion begins. It’s quite a process, kind of like becoming a pro.
This is a brief overview of the process of registering and competing in amateur golf events. For most golfers, this is where most of them stay. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Tons of golfers from their teens to 60+ compete in amateur golf events their entire life. Formal events are a great way to test your skills, meet new people, play against great golfers, and compete at fun courses.
I’ve played in hundreds of days of amateur tournaments the past few years and can say it’s one of the best experiences out there. If you love the game and want to keep getting better, enroll in some local events to see how your game holds up in competition.
Unless you have a strong desire to become a professional, going from amateur to professional isn’t usually worth it. The tournament costs soar, the competition is even more difficult, and you can’t compete in amateur events as a pro.
If you made it to step three, you clearly want to make golf your career. If and when you consistently excel at amateur golf events, the next step is turning pro.
This is the step where most people get confused. Unlike other sports, there is no formal process to becoming a professional, as you aren’t drafted by a team.
You simply decide that you will compete as a professional golfer in events instead of an amateur. Unless you’re Tiger Woods at his “Hello World” press conference, it’s nothing crazy.
Instead, you find a professional event and register. As I mentioned, mini tour events are much more expensive than amateur events because they pay out players. This is another stage where a lot of guys get stuck as the competition increases drastically and making a profit isn’t easy.
As you build your professional golf resume in the mini tours, the next step is to go to Q-school. In the past, the journey to the PGA Tour was much different from what it is today.
Now, to get to the PGA Tour, you have to first go through the Korn Ferry Tour. But in the past, you could register for Q-school, grind out six days of tournament golf (yes, six days), and could make it to the big leagues.
But as golf became more popular and competitive, so they had to adjust the process. Now, golfers must go to Q-school to earn a spot on the Korn Ferry Tour.
The Q-school process is quite a grind, too. It’s made up of four stages over the course of four months. That’s right, four months! I have some personal experience here as well and would love to share how it works…
The first step for most golfers is to go through the pre-qualifying stage. You can register as a professional or even compete as an amateur (although registration is the same price). In 2019, I registered as an amateur because I wanted to see how my game stacked up.
All you do is find a location that you want to compete in and enter your credit card information. It costs between $2,500 – $3,000 just for the event, not to mention travel and airfare costs.
Pre-qualifying is a 3-day, no cut event. Each venue selects a certain number of players and ties to move on to the first stage based on total size of the field.
For me, I registered for a site in Nebraska as the course looked fun and I wanted an adventure. The course was brutal; 7,000+ yards, high humidity, thick rough, and greens that rolled a 12 on the stimpmeter. After shooting 71-73-75, I ended up missing the first stage by two shots.
While I was disappointed, I can say it was one of the best experiences of my life. It taught me a ton about my game and learned how to play under pressure. But I also learned what a grind it was for so many and could see why so many guys burn out over time.
If you move on to the next stage, the process is very similar and happens in late September or early October. Register and pay for the first stage, which is also a 3-day, no cut competition. Expect competition to be even more competitive here!
If you move on to the second stage in late October or November, well done. There are only 3-5 sites for the second stage in the country and if you make it through, you get to finals.
Finally, in November or December each year, it’s the finals. This is a 4-day, no cut event where golfers grind it out. The goal is to finish in the top 25 spots to secure their spot on the Korn Ferry Tour.
If you finish 26-50, not all is lost though. You still get conditional status, which means you can play in a select number of events.
All in all, it’s a long process just to make it to the Korn Ferry Tour, let alone the PGA Tour.
The Korn Ferry Tour is just below the PGA Tour and a lot of guys go back and forth. But if a player isn’t ready for the Korn Ferry Tour, they can go another route. This option is usually better than grinding it out on mini tours.
The alternate route is competing on another high level tour like the Mackenzie Tour (Canada), Forme Tour, PGA Tour China, or the PGA Tour Latino America.
Once you make it to the Korn Ferry Tour, then you need to compete and travel a lot. The goal is simple: make it to the finals and finish in the top 25. If you do, you become one of the lucky guys to advance to the PGA Tour. If you finish between 25-50, you still get conditional status and will get a chance to make your PGA Tour debut as well.
After you finish in the top 25 in the Korn Ferry Tour finals, you get your elusive PGA Tour card. For every player, this is one of the most important days of their lives. It’s the culmination of blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice to chase a goal.
Getting to the PGA Tour is wildly impressive and requires more grit and determination than most people realize. But just because you become one of the lucky 125 players, doesn’t mean you get to stay there. You still need to play great golf and compete against the best players in the world, or you risk losing your card.
Some players last years, while others make it once and never make it back to the big stage. The truth is, high-level golf is a grind. The travel schedule is rigorous, the courses are super challenging, and let’s not forget, it’s golf.
Even for the best golfers in the world, the sport is extremely unpredictable. So many talented guys lose their cards because of too many missed cuts, injuries, and loss of confidence.
Winning an event really helps you stay in the picture. Each tournament comes with a big check, but the best part is the security from winning. For example, if you win an event like the Players Championship, you get:
- Five-year exemption on the PGA Tour.
- Three-year invite to play the Masters at Augusta.
- Three-year exemption to play in the Open Championship and PGA Championship.
But other guys make a comfortable living without winning often. A great example is Charles Howell III, who has only won three times but made a staggering 38 million dollars! Thanks to consistent top 10 finishes, he’s secured his future on the tour without winning regularly.
The road to the PGA Tour isn’t easy, but it’s a dream worth chasing if you love golf. Sadly, most players who go after this goal, never make it to the big stage.
My biggest piece of advice if you want to work in golf or chase the dream is to make sure you always love the game.
College golf burnt me out and I took six years off the sport that dominated my early life. But I fell back in love with it and have now played golf more than I could ever imagine.
Just remember, it’s a sport and should always be fun above all else. But if you love it like I do, then it might be worth pursuing a golf career or working your way up to compete with the best guys in the world.