How one man launched a women’s pro tourney

by | Nov 3, 2021 | LPGA

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – When Hannah Berman turned professional last summer, her father, Mark, took a month-long sabbatical from his job to caddie – 30 days on the road, 302 holes, six courses, four tournaments and 3,800 miles traveled. In Paris, Texas, site of the Women’s All Pro Tour’s Kathy Whitworth Championship, they took the requisite selfie in front of the 30-foot-tall replica of the Eiffel Tower capped with a cowboy hat and enjoyed “the best red sauce ever” at Capizzi’s Italian Kitchen, a restaurant owned by a man of Albanian descent.

“Because Capizzi’s Albanian Kitchen wouldn’t bring people in,” said the owner.

In McKinney, Texas, they stayed in a bungalow built in 1926 that allegedly housed famed outlaw Jesse James. And then there was Scotsdale Golf Course in Bella Vista, Arkansas, where they enjoyed a casual stroll on the gently rolling, mostly flat front nine, which is why they thought nothing when at least three people asked, “You’re riding, right?”

Mark, 56, figured he didn’t need no stinkin’ golf cart. “I gave them the look that said, ‘Hell, I’m from New England, these are barely hills,’ ” he recalled.

Little did he know that the back nine runs a switch back up a mountain before returning to the valley. Next time, he’ll hitch a ride.

But that wasn’t the only wake-up call during this first foray into the life of a fledgling women’s golf pro. As he charted the course for his daughter’s playing schedule, he discovered there weren’t many playing opportunities for the scores of talented women coming out of college with dreams of qualifying for the LPGA tour or its official developmental circuit, the Symetra Tour. Further, when Berman began to add up the expenses of a developmental playing career, which he estimated at $40,000-$60,000 per year, he also noticed a lack of scheduling efficiency that requires the players to typically crisscross the country, racking up expenses for flights, gas and hotel stays.

“Not every girl coming out of college is ready to play on the LPGA or Symetra Tour,” Mark said. “Where is the developmental path? I’ve been on this journey with my daughter since she was nine years old. And it’s like, ‘Now what?’ ”

Somewhere on the 3,800-mile journey through the backwaters of Texas, Berman had an epiphany: If no one else is going to help develop that ‘Now what,’ he was just going to have to be the guy to do it himself.

That and a lot of sweat, toil and tears is how he gave birth to the PXG Women’s Match Play Championship at World Golf Village, the first professional women’s golf tournament in Northeast Florida in more than a decade (the Legends Tour’s Handa Cup is the most recent while Jacksonville hasn’t welcomed female pros since the Jimmy Carter administration) with 63 professional players fighting their way toward or back to the LPGA.

Mark and Hannah Berman in Paris, Texas for the WAPT’s Kathy Whitworth Paris Championship in 2020. (Courtesy Mark Berman)

Different landscapes

At first blush, this looks to be another story of a parent wanting to create the best circumstances for his daughter to succeed. Hannah began playing in the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship at Pinehurst Resort at age nine and was good enough to play an alphabet soup of junior circuits, including AJGA events. She advanced to the finals of the Women’s Southern Amateur, led Team USA to a gold medal in the team competition and earned silver as an individual at the Maccabiah Games in Israel and played collegiately at University of West Florida for a season before transferring to Jacksonville University. She is part of the explosion of female golf at the junior level, and more broadly women in general: There were 450,000 new women golfers last year making women’s golf the fastest growing segment in the market.

In 2005, the AJGA, the top of the food chain in junior golf, counted just under 1,000 female participants in its tournaments. In 2020, the number of female participants at AJGA events surpassed 2,000 for the second straight year. It’s not just at the highest level either as the National Junior Golf Scoreboard, which ranks girls between ages 14-18, can attest. A decade ago, when Berman began paying attention to its rankings, it ranked approximately 1,200 girls. That number has more than tripled. In short, the depth of talent in women’s professional golf has never been higher; there are hundreds of Hannah Bermans that didn’t exist a decade ago.

“Golf, as an industry, has done an amazing job of cultivating young girls to play golf,” Mark said. “But you get to the end of the college road and there’s a disconnect. That’s where the industry has stopped in creating opportunities to keep playing unless you’re one of the Jennifer Kupchos, Maria Fassis or Sierra Brookses of the world that are ready to make a seamless transition to the pro ranks. Playing professionally has been the bait all these years, but there’s these two little tours (the WAPT and the Cactus Tour, which formed in 2005 and holds events mostly in the Phoenix area) and you can’t make a living.

“To make matters worse, those tours end in September and October,” he continued. “Not only are there not a lot of jobs, not only can you not make a lot of money at your job, not only do you have to pay to go to work (via entry fees), but you can’t go to work from October to April. I’ve got an army of golf parents that are saying my kid is good enough, but she could go flip burgers and at least get paid.”

Come rain or shine, Paige Crawford chases her LPGA Tour dream from the comfort of her well-stocked van. (Photo courtesy WAPT)

The inequities between the men’s and women’s game starts early. As a “girl-dad,” Berman is acutely aware of the challenges young women face as they try to pursue golf, from the boys playing all four rounds of a junior tournament on a PGA Tour-level course while the girls are relegated to the friendlier sister course to the boys’ tee gift including a box of balls while the girls get a sleeve of leftovers from last year’s tournament. Those slights are ratcheted up another notch on the journey to golf’s big leagues.

On the Korn Ferry Tour, the men’s version of triple A baseball, 53 players earned more than $100,000 this year compared to just four on the Symetra Tour. (The KFT money is cumulative for 2020-21 so the 53 pros making six figures is based on the number of players earning more than $200,000 and dividing by 2.) The PGA Tour also runs stepping-stone tours in Canada, Latin America and China to provide a direct path to its land of milk and honey, and there are also an assortment of independent mini tours beneath that as well as the Challenge Tour (European Tour) and Asian Tour for the more adventurous.

“There’s so many options for men to become successful in the golf world without ever having to step foot on the PGA Tour,” Hannah said. “But women simply don’t have that. Most of us are doing some side hustle to make ends meet. The men don’t need to work second jobs or part time or take seasons off just to get by. We don’t have that luxury. If you lose a couple thousand dollars, that’s a good year and it shouldn’t be that way.”

Or as Mark put it, “The road to the PGA Tour is a freeway; the road to the LPGA Tour is a one-lane road.” It’s an analogy that doesn’t mesh well with the LPGA’s “Drive On” slogan. How exactly does one ‘drive on’ to the LPGA?

Leveling the playing field

Until just three years ago, there were even fewer options for women without Symetra Tour status. That is until Elise Bradley played in the Business First Bank Classic, a men’s All Pro Tour event held at her home club, Beau Chene CC in Mandeville, Louisiana. The club’s owner offered her a sponsor’s invite into the tournament and she figured why not play against the boys?

Gary DeSerrano, president of APT, is in his 24th year running the men’s circuit, which this season consisted of 13 72-hole tournaments with a cut after 36 holes and first-place checks of at least $20,000 and purses that reach $180,000. With events based in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas, the APT gives those players without status to one of the PGA Tour feeder circuits the opportunity to test their ability at the highest level. DeSerrano knew Bubba Watson, Ryan Palmer and, more recently, Will Zalatoris before they hit it big. As a testimony to its quality fields, 20 APT members advanced to this week’s Korn Ferry Tour Q-School Finals in Savannah, Georgia.

Bradley won the Louisiana Women’s Amateur twice, played at LSU and has competed in Symetra Tour events since turning pro in 2016. She earned just $5,890 in 17 starts this season on the circuit. To supplement her meager winnings, she works at an oil company during the off-season, teaches the owner’s eighth-grade son and coaches his golf team, organized well logs for a geologist and even worked for a nun. While competing in the men’s event at her home club, she congratulated DeSerrano on running an event that prepared the field for the next level and suggested the women needed a similar tour to hone their games.

DeSerrano didn’t know anything about the landscape of women’s pro golf, but he promised to do his homework. First, he broached the idea of a women’s circuit to some other players. Then he tested it at two of his men’s events, attracting 20-player fields.

“That’s when I knew we had something,” DeSerrano said.

The ⁦@GENERATION_W⁩ Links to Leadership program underway. This is the most important part of the ⁦@PXGWMPC⁩. This is my vision come true. Thank you ⁦@DonnaOrender⁩ ⁦@pxg⁩ ⁦@WAPTGolf⁩ and all the players for making this happen. Wow. ⁦

— Mark D. Berman (@MediaShareCG) October 29, 2021

A LinkedIn connection steered him to Mike Nichols, chief business officer for the Symetra Tour, and they struck a deal that made the WAPT the only developmental tour for women that provides a pathway to the Symetra Tour. (The top two finishers at each WAPT event qualify for an upcoming Symetra Tour event and the top five finishers on the money list advance to second stage at Q-School.) There already have been success stories such as Sarah White, who parlayed an exemption from finishing fifth and earning $1,690 at the WAPT Texarkana Children’s Charity Classic into her first start at the Symetra Tour’s Founders Tribute at Longbow Golf Club in Mesa, Arizona. White took full advantage, winning the tournament and earning her Symetra Tour membership for the 2021 season.

Not long ago, DeSerrano texted Bradley and asked her, “Do the girls thank you? Because this tour wouldn’t exist without you.”

Bradley had no idea how her conversation had led to more opportunities for women golfers. That’s how Hannah Berman ended up playing a handful of WAPT events after graduating from college during a year when LPGA Q-School was canceled due to COVID-19. Hannah failed to cash a check as a pro in seven starts and discovered just how large the gap was between her game and the likes of LPGA winners Celine Boutier and Fassi, who each played in WAPT events to keep sharp while the LPGA was on hiatus.

“It was like jumping into the deep end of the pool,” said Hannah of her pro ranks experience.

With her confidence eroded, Hannah, 23, reevaluated her career aspirations and began pursuing PGA status through the PGM program, working seasonally as an assistant golf professional at Country Club of the Rockies in Arrowhead, Colorado and Sawgrass Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.

“It’s brought me a lot more joy than playing has recently only because I’ve been actually helping people,” she said.

Despite his daughter backing off her pro aspirations, Mark moved full speed ahead to create an independent tournament sanctioned by the WAPT. The concept is unique: 64 golfers battling it out over two weeks in two separate, but connected, tournaments. The first week featured a 54-hole stroke-play format on the King & Bear course (reduced to 36 holes due to weather), which also seeded the second week’s event, a match-play championship at Slammer & Squire. All the players advanced to the match play tournament. A champion will be crowned on Nov. 4.

“If the Symetra Tour is ‘the Road to the LPGA,’ then events like ours are the on-ramps,” said Mark, who has aspirations of creating another viable option for women to play, potentially on the east coast.

Renee Parsons of PXG (left) and Donna Orender of Generation W speak during a half-day session for women’s empowerment and women’s initiatives at the PXG World Golf Village Match Play Championship. (Courtesy Mark Berman)

None of that dream is possible without sponsors. Landing PXG as the title of the debut World Golf Village event was a major coup. Owners Bob and Renee Parsons, the latter of whom flew in to speak at a half-day women’s conference between the two tournaments for contestants, could cut a check to sponsor an LPGA tournament if they wanted to, with TV exposure, a chalet at the 18th green and all the accoutrements associated with big-time professional golf. Why did they choose to plaster the PXG name on a women’s developmental event?

“They’re the future of the sport,” said Leela Brennan, PXG’s vice president of brand communications and engagement.

The purse of nearly $70,000, as sad as this may sound, is significant for this level of golf and it climbed that hight thanks, in part, to the generosity of Ken Hollingsworth, owner of a local electrical contracting business who played in the tournament pro-am with rookie professional Mikayla Fitzgerald of Phoenix and following a conversation with Berman donated $10,000 on the spot to the purse, which was split evenly between the prize money for the stroke-play event and match-play championship.

At one point, the tournament was oversubscribed with a 20-person wait list, but then players started to withdraw because they lacked the financial resources to pay the $975 entry fee and cover the accompanying expenses.

“You can’t afford to chase your dream? That breaks my heart,” Mark said.

The field teed off with only 63 competitors. Hannah could’ve rounded out the field – she admirably cited not wanting to take a spot from a player still chasing her dream – but in the end she wasn’t prepared to jump back into the deep end of the pool. In a strange way that was only fitting as it proved that creating an elevated experience for women in this dark corner of professional golf was about something bigger than creating opportunities for one man’s daughter.

“It really wasn’t about her. It was because of her,” Mark said. “She’s a representative of one of the hundreds of these girls that absolutely have the talent to make it and really deserve to have a fair shot.”