The Reality of Turning Pro: Brynn Walker, lessons learned and the long run

by | Dec 10, 2021 | LPGA

Brynn Walker started her senior year of college two steps closer to her dream career – professional golf. Athleticism ran in Walker’s blood. She competed on the Radnor Orioles Little League baseball team in her hometown of St. Davids, Pennsylvania as a young girl. Striking out the boys as the star pitcher, she wanted to become the first female in the MLB. Although she took a detour at age 10, the drive for mastery never left her.

She fell in love with golf and dreamed of becoming the best player in the world. 

In the fall of 2019, she felt that goal was starting to become reality. Like Walker, many female golfers who desire a professional track, must endure three stages of LPGA Tour Q-School. 

Stage I is held annually in late August. After 54 holes the field is cut down from 360 to 150 players. Oftentimes competing in extreme summer heat, those 150 golfers – amateur and professional – fight for spots in Stage II (96 players qualified in ’19). 

Walker easily advanced. She shot scores of 71-74-69-72 and at 2 under par finished inside the top 15. Two months later, she traveled to Florida for the next step. 

“A lot of things happened between Stage I and Stage II,” Walker recalled recently of that time when she changed swing coaches, was going through a swing overhaul and began another fall season at UNC-Chapel Hill. “It was all really bad timing. Stage II 2019 may have been the lowest golf for me.”  

A minimum of the top 30 players and ties advance from Stage 2 to LPGA Q-Series. Walker shot 83-77-76-81 (+29) and did not advance to the finale.

“I felt completely lost in my golf game back then,” she said. “If I could go turn the clock, I probably would have just played with what I had and not changed my swing until later.”

She still earned partial status on the Symetra Tour, and filled with grit and determination, Walker stuck with her plan to turn professional after graduation in May 2020. Having Monday-qualified for the ShopRite LPGA Classic in 2016 and ’19, Walker received a sponsor’s exemption for ’20. It was going to be her pro debut.

Then came COVID-19 hit. Athletes, both amateur and professional, saw seasons delayed and canceled, and dreams put on pause.

Walker had a choice to make. Would she turn professional? She felt prepared and desperately wanted to showcase her talent and skill against the top players in the world.

“The more I thought about it, it made no sense. It would only cost me money,” said Walker, who didn’t know how many tournaments would be played during the pandemic and knew she couldn’t improve her status via the Symetra Tour.

So, Walker decided to use the eligibility provided by the NCAA to players who lost their championship seasons from COVID-19 and returned to play for UNC. She turned pro once the Symetra Tour began its 2021 campaign. 

A Life Without Performance 

The pandemic created new strains on elite athletes, increasing their vulnerability to mental health symptoms. 

Walker, 23, experienced it differently.

“I could just focus on the process of getting better instead of always being interrupted by performance,” she said.

During the summer of COVID, Walker could be found in her basement hitting bay or at St. Davids Golf Club. She experienced an elimination of pressure and had the time to reflect on why she loved the game. “I played golf just for the joy of it and that’s what I did as a kid,” she said.

With summer 2020 now a blank canvas, Walker had the freedom to schedule her practices how she desired. “I wanted to take the time to master my swing,” she said. “Because I didn’t have the expectation of results, I was so relaxed, which I believe helped me master what I wanted to master. I wasn’t fighting myself.” 

Sometimes, Walker would spend hours obsessing over her favorite players’ swings: usually Rory McIlroy and Anne Van Dam, but occasionally Brooks Koepka. “I loved looking at all the similarities. It would keep my up at night,” Walker said with a laugh. “Getting so into making something better that you lose the concept of time is such a cool place to be, and that’s where I was.”

The ShopRite Classic, which was supposed to be in June 2020, was pushed to October. The tournament committee still gave Walker the exemption, and she competed as an amateur. 

A missed cut with scores of 77-76 didn’t defeat Walker. She was fully engrossed in the process now. “I just need to improve these parts in my game and then I’m there,” she said. “That ignited the fire in me.”

It wasn’t until she set herself a timeline that Walker started to feel that pressure return.

“I wanted to go all in,” Walker told herself when she moved to Jupiter, Florida in November 2020 to train. “I was so focused and eliminated all my distractions, because I wanted to be on the LPGA by the end of [2021].”

Financing the Dream

It’s no secret that professional golf is expensive. Money becomes especially tight for those not yet on the LPGA Tour. The highest purse on the Symetra Tour is $250,000 and sharply decreases the lower the tour. Comparatively, on the Korn Ferry Tour, the average purse more than double that with many offering $750,000

Walker broke down every tournament entry fee and travel expenses on a spreadsheet. She projected her expenses to be about $40,000.

In Walker’s 2021 rookie season, she competed in 19 tournaments in nine months, traveled over 30,000 miles across the United States and spent over 100 nights in an Airbnb or hotel. 

“It was weird going from being an amateur where you’re just playing for a score and rankings to thinking a 4-footer can be the difference between a top 10 and only $500,” said Walker. “Like everything in golf, you need to distract yourself by focusing on the process and the golf shot.”

“Focusing on the process” is a phrase said by many of the game’s best. While it’s a critical mindset to have to be successful, it doesn’t erase the difficulty of financially making it as a pro.

“On the Symetra Tour, you’re not going to make money that week unless you’re inside the top 10,” said Walker. “You’re literally playing to break even to get on LPGA Tour. You can miss a cut and lose money or win and it will cover your next four tournaments.”

Walker earned $8,063 in Symetra Tour winnings, which included one top-10 finish. On the LPGA Tour, a top-10 finisher in a non-major event will make anywhere between $39,000 to $150,000. For Walker’s top-10 finish on the Symetra Tour, she made just over $4,000 – half of her yearly earnings.

“The drop off is so sharp,” Walker said. “If you make the cut, you’re basically making the entry fee.” In Walker’s first Symetra Tour event, she competed in the Garden City Charity Classic at Buffalo Dunes Golf Course in western Kansas. She made the cut, finishing T-58 and earned $605. That may have covered the $500 entry fee but not the entire week of expenses, which can cost up to $2,000.

Additionally, Walker didn’t have full status on the Symetra Tour, so she spent her early months as a professional on a very fluid schedule. “In the beginning, I flew all the time for Monday qualifiers,” Walker said about just trying to make it into some Symetra fields. “And I usually stayed in a hotel because most tournaments were in the middle of nowhere.”

Not to mention, the tournament entry fees on the Symetra Tour double the LPGA entry fees, $500 compared to $250. Walker paid almost $12,000 in entry fees this year.

“Yardage books are also free on the LPGA, but not on Symetra,” said Walker, who dropped $1,100 on yardage books for the year, which didn’t include an extra caddie yardage book since she usually carried her own bag. She also spent approximately $8,000 on hotels and Airbnb’s, $3,000 on flights, $4,500 on rental cars and a total of $33,000 in yearly expenses. 

The number was lower than the $40,000 she projected in November, but still significant. However, Walker didn’t just spend time projecting her expense in November, she networked with sponsors who could hopefully finance her. 

Walker is no beginner to personal branding. As a journalism major, she knew it was important to reach out to companies that correlated with her values. “You have to believe in yourself,” said Walker, when asked about how she reached out to sponsors. “I’m also never just asking for something, but also how can I provide value for their brand, whether it’s play in outing or host a clinic for juniors.”

First, Walker reached out to TBP Converting, a custom fabricator, distributor and manufacturer, headquartered in her home state. “I pitched to them early about promoting their logo on my towel and bag,” said Walker. Second, she pitched to the Cobbs Creek Foundation to be their brand ambassador. The foundation is dedicated to funding the Philadelphia public course to redo their entire golf complex, which will include 27 holes and a First Tee facility. “Their goal is to host a PGA tournament there,” said Walker

Walker’s additional sponsors include Under Armour, who supplies her with clothes, and Titleist with clubs. For financing purposes, both TBP Converting and Cobbs Creek Foundation were willing to help fund her LPGA tour dream.

“They asked me, ‘Between the two of us, what do you want from us?’ So that was huge and took a ton of pressure off of me financially,” she said. “That’s why I always try to give back, because they make it possible to do this.”

The Rookie Season

“Based on what people warned me, professional life is similar to what I expected,” said Walker. “You travel all the time and spend a lot of time alone, but it hasn’t quite lived up to what I expected yet. If I was on the LPGA, it might be different.”

Walker practiced endlessly in the beginning of her 2021 rookie season. At the time, she believed that more hours would give her the best results. “In every tournament, I was always the first one there and the last one out,” she said. “I would play 18-hole practice rounds on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and practice for 2-3 hours after that.”

A common misconception for dedicated, goal-driven individuals is that more is better. By Walker’s third week on the road, she felt her body grow weary. “I played alright the first two rounds and made the cut,” she said referring to one of her tournaments. “I had an 8 a.m. tee time for the third round and was sitting in parking lot feeling so tired. I felt sick. I was like, Oh, if I could change how I prepared. I just wore myself out and did not play well that day.”

Walker finished her five-week stretch and didn’t feel much better. “I didn’t feel like getting up to go play or practice. I guess I was sort of burned out, it was weird. It was a different type of tiredness. Maybe because I’ve never done this before,” she described.

So, she took a week off and reflected on how her mindset had shifted from the summer of no performance to the summer of constant performance. A year ago, Walker was relaxed and dedicated to mastery. Now, she felt tense again. “I realized it was the timeline I set for myself to get on the LPGA,” said Walker. “I’m so focused on getting here by this time, but I can probably take a backseat and focus on what needs to get better.”

This reflection also made Walker realize how easy it is to forget the greatness and dwell on the weaknesses. “The highs aren’t that high and the lows really low,” she said. “When it’s high, celebrate it. Actually celebrate it.” She thought back to her top-10 finish in Indiana. Walker was in contention for the lead, went to the bathroom, and finished double bogey-bogey. Despite wanting to feel disappointed, it was her best finish as a rookie, her sister, Colby, was on the bag and it was her top paycheck that year. 

“We went back to Nashville where she [Colby] lives because I missed my flight since I was in the last group, and we had a great dinner. It was the best way to celebrate,” Brynn said.

Although a Symetra tour rookie, Walker has also competed on the Women’s All Pro Tour and LPGA Tour. The tension is vastly different on each level. Professionals competing on the Women’s All Pro Tour do not have a straight shot to the LPGA. They are working to get Symetra tour status. “People are having more fun with it on WAPT,” said Walker, who competed in the tour’s Wichita Falls Championship in April, finishing T-12 and earning $1,2000.  

For Symetra Tour players to earn their LPGA card, they must finish within the top 10 of the seasonal money list. “Symetra is super tense,” said Walker. “You want to make it onto LPGA so bad and no one wants to lose status.” 

“When I get to LPGA events, I’m way more relaxed,” she said. Walker competed in the Shoprite LPGA Classic and the Volunteers of America Classic last year. “Everyone has their way of doing things on LPGA, and on Symetra, I think everyone’s trying to find that.”

Walker started to find her way of doing things after her five-week period of all work and no rest. “I started to change, where I played nine-hole practice rounds and practiced, and instead of staying in hotels [by herself] I stayed in air BNB’s with two other girls, Taylor Totland, Katelyn Dambaugh, and that helped a lot,” said Walker. 

However, embarking on her passion for writing was the turning point for Walker. “It could be something I do where I’m so focused on writing that I could forget about everything else,” she said.

That’s when she decided to start her own blog to document her professional journey and inspire other golfers from her story. “I would write in the airport or on the airplanes. I try to always apply my golf stories to life,” she said. “Whether it was an up or down, it can apply to anybody. I’m a super inspirational junkie, and it’s fun to get messages from people on how my writing is inspiring.”  

When Walker isn’t writing in her free time she’s reading. “If I’m not reading it’s not a good day, because I always need to read,” said Walker, whose favorite book is “Life is not a Game of Perfect,” by Bob Rotella. “In my off time I’m always working to master my mind.”

Walker is now rigid on scheduling weeks off. “I realize that I play better playing less weeks and focusing on peaking in the weeks I am playing,” she said. “Then just spending time with family and recharging during those off weeks.”

Her family will soon include former UNC football long-snapper Trevor Collins. The two announced their engagement in November. 

“The grinder is more relaxed now,” she added with a laugh. “You have to hit the lowest low before you can grow.”

The Next Step

The day finally arrived: October 21, 2021. LPGA Tour Qualifying School Stage II. If Walker finished inside the top 45 she would advance to LPGA Tour Q-Series and be one step closer to the LPGA Tour.

Again, this dream doesn’t come without a cost. Not only do expectations rise for each player, especially those who have been trying for years to qualify for the biggest women’s tour in the world, but Q-School is a huge financial investment.

The combined entry fee for Stage I and Stage II is $5,500. LPGA Q-Series entry fee is another $5,500 for non-LPGA members. That’s over $10,000 in entry fees for three tournaments. 

Walker finished 10 shots out of the top 45, shooting 76-73-75-71 (+7). “Everyone expects me to be upset, but I’m not,” said Walker. “I just need to be better. Yeah, I could dwell on the outcome because I didn’t accomplish what I wanted, but it’s not about how well you play in three tournaments, it’s about how consistent you can be in the long run.” 

On her blog, Walker wrote a piece titled “Lessons from Q-School,” where she detailed her experience as a rookie on tour and the importance of adopting a growth mindset as a professional athlete.

“My biggest fault was telling myself I want to be great by this point,” reflected Walker. “Now I haven’t set a timeline in professional golf. If it doesn’t shape up the way I expect it to, I’ll know. I want to enjoy the process and really love it. Most of all, I really want to inspire people, and document my experiences to motivate others to pursue their dreams.”