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Young Pro team helps Canadian golfers navigate the road to the big leagues


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In a way, Mackenzie Hughes can thank his parents’ reluctance to spring for a babysitter for launching him towards a career as a pro golfer.

He was seven years old when his parents were just getting into the sport. "The alternatives were get a babysitter, or take me along with them," the now 25-year-old says.

"My dad made me a cut-down driver and a cut-down putter. I would tee off on the hole and pick my ball up and run down the fairway and throw it on the green and knock it in the hole – and that’s how I really got started."

Now a pro on the Web.com developmental tour and a two-time Canadian Men’s Amateur Champion, Hughes is using better clubs and making longer drives these days. But he still knows the value of assistance, whether serendipitous or otherwise.

He’s one of six golfers named to the 2016 Team Canada Young Pro Squad, a partnership between Golf Canada and sponsors such as RBC, that aims to help young golfers make the transition from amateur to pro.

And becoming a pro golfer – at least the kind of pro golfer that makes enough prize money to bring in a comfortable living on top of tour costs – can be a long haul.

As much as players like Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods before him have given the sport a youthful edge, golf generally remains an older person’s game. Players often don’t peak until their 30s, and it can take a good decade of adulthood to refine skills. Meanwhile, golfers rack up costs and miles on the highway, making incremental improvements to a game that takes three to four hours to play once.

"I want to say conservatively, each year of professional golf is probably going to cost you in the range of C$50,000-$70,000,"says Hughes. "Let’s say in a couple of years’ time, you’ve got a wife travelling with you or a kid travelling with you. All of a sudden your expenses start to go through the roof."

The expenses can be a shock for a golfer coming out of amateur programs on national teams or at universities, where travel and accommodation are covered, and resources are provided.

"You do a spend a lot of time on the road," says Young Pro member Sue Kim, who admits to being "spoiled" during her amateur career at the University of Denver and on Canada’s national team.

"For me, it was really difficult to make the change to turn pro because all the support was lost in a day," she says.

Currently playing on the Symetra Tour, which is a development circuit for the LPGA, Kim aims to reclaim the LPGA card she had in 2014 and 2015, before injuries slowed her game.

In the meantime, her life is about driving, budgeting and time out on the course.

"Most of the girls drive (to tournaments), saving the budget a little bit," she says. Kim will arrive in town for a tournament a week ahead of time, spending two days getting to know the course, and playing in the pro-am before the actual tour event.

"I try to scope out the course as much as possible and get myself prepared for the tournament days, find out what’s a good place to be approaching the green from," she says.

Golf Canada coach Derek Ingram has first-hand experience with the financial challenges that can come with life on the road. "When I played at the Canadian tour 16 or 17 years ago, I slept in my car a few nights. It was just an opportunity to save $100 on a hotel," he says.

Such stories aren’t that common these days, but it does still happen, he says. It’s that kind of pressure that pushes out a lot of young players who would otherwise have had the talent to make a go of it as a pro.

"There are a lot of great players that just don’t persevere, and it’s not that they don’t have the ability to persevere, they just run out of money," he says.

"Unfortunately golf just takes so much time to get good at it. There’s such a commitment in terms of time and hours that are required in the bank to make it work."

Support is more than just financial

Financial support through the Young Pro program helps offset some of the costs, but the greater benefit is access to coaches, a sports psychologist, a nutritionist, travel assistance and other such supports.

"That’s one of the biggest things I see with amateur players. They just lose that support structure that may have been in place at one time, or probably needs to be in place if you want to have a long run as professional," says Ingram, who has coached with Golf Canada since 2000, and has been the full-time coach of the men’s team since 2011.

Athletes also rely on that support system when it comes to managing fatigue and stress, which is why sports psychologists have become as ubiquitous in high-level sports as uniforms with corporate logos on them.

Sports psychologist Adrienne Leslie-Toogood works with the golfers on the Young Pro team, helping them deal with pressure that understandably jumps when golfers go out on the pro circuits.

Doing so can require a new mental approach to the game. "One thing we know is it’s very, very important to focus on the process of what you’re doing, rather than the outcome, and that can be really difficult to do when you first become a professional player," she says.

"We know that if you’re holding on to rounds you’re not going to be recovering as well, and every tournament includes four rounds. If you’re not recovering and not sleeping restfully, you’re probably not going to be as sharp on that last day."

If the golfers and coaches feel extra pressure this year, it’s because golf will be making its return to the Olympics at the Rio games this summer.

David Agnew, RBC’s head of Wealth Management for Canada and president of the board for the Canadian Golf Foundation, says the Olympic return was a key impetus to launching the Young Pro program in 2014.

"We thought, let’s look at the Olympics and how can we help some of the young aspiring golfers be candidates," says Agnew. "That’s why we started supporting the Young Pro program… to help the next generation of golfers represent Canada."

Along with Hughes and Kim, the other golfers on this year’s Young Pro team are Augusta James, Albin Choi, Corey Conners and Taylor Pendrith.

For the golfers in the program, securing a PGA or LPGA tour card is the mid-term goal, and from there building up to becoming a regular on the leader boards, much like Canadian Brooke Henderson, a former Young Pro member in who is currently ranked in the LPGA’s top 10 money list.

And goals beyond that? "The big goal is I just want to become the best Canadian golfer in the world," says Kim.

This publication has been issued on behalf of Royal Bank of Canada and is for information purposes only. Its contents do not constitute recommendation to purchase any investment product nor does this article constitute legal, investment, accounting, tax or other advice and should not be relied upon in that regard. You are advised to seek independent legal, investment, tax and accounting advice prior to acting upon information contained in this article. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone.