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The lonely life of a pro

Many golfers look longingly at a player such as Louis Oosthuizen. And who can blame them? The 30-year-old accumulated more than R60-million in prize money during 2012, snared a lot more than this figure in endorsements, and did so flying around the world in his own jet playing the game he loves. It certainly seems like the life, doesn’t it?

Oosthuizen defended his Africa Open title last January, and rounded off the month with a handy €65 000 cheque at the Volvo Golf Champions. In February, he set off for the United States to play on the PGA Tour for a second year in a row.

What he perhaps didn’t realise was the extent of travelling he would do that year. He is a full member of the European, PGA and Sunshine Tours, while also making the occasional visit to the Asian Tour. From the time he departed for the USA in February until his return to South Africa in December for a holiday, Oosthuizen flew 150 000 km between the 31 tournaments he competed in – nearly four times the circumference of the earth.

This figure excludes flights in between, and of course doesn’t factor in commutes by car. In my book, it’s an absolutely astonishing amount of travel, and it must be exhausting. Oosthuizen is fortunate to have a house in America and in Manchester, along with his farm near Mossel Bay. But even with these three residences, he would have still only spent a maximum of 30 weeks at “home” last year. It can’t be easy when you have a wife and two young children.

Many of Oosthuizen’s adoring fans will remember 2012 as the year in which he suffered a heart-breaking playoff defeat to Bubba Watson at the Masters. What they will have forgotten is that the former Open Champion took off into the Georgia sunset that Sunday evening bound for Malaysia. Seven days after making the 15 000km journey, he held the Maybank Malaysian Open trophy aloft. It may not have had the prestige of the green jacket that had eluded him the week before, but it was some achievement after such an extraordinary commute.

Henrik Stenson is another man not averse to travel. In November 2012, he became just the second foreign golfer in 11 years to win the South African Open. What many don’t know was that he arrived from the USA just 36 hours before the tournament started.

“I went to bed at midnight yesterday and woke up at 01:40, so I guess the body must have thought it was a bit of an afternoon kip,” Stenson joked of his jetlag after clinching victory. “I slept another couple of hours, so I don’t know what time of the day it is really. But it’s worked for me - maybe that’s the winning formula next time.”

Of course, it isn’t always a winning formula. Like Oosthuizen, Stenson is a member of both the European and PGA Tours. Victory at the 2009 Players Championship earned him a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour, but the stress of playing both tours told as he endured poor seasons in 2010 and 2011.

“The Open in 2010 (where he came third) kind of saved my year, because I really struggled. In 2011, I was even worse,” the 36-year-old said. “It’s tough playing both tours. Those two years I finished outside the top-125 on the PGA Tour, and when you look at the people struggling around you to get their cards, it isn’t right. I’ve been better in 2012, but if I can’t come in the top-125 consistently, then I might have to reassess.”

While Stenson’s difficulties likely do not include financial ones, the demands placed on him are extreme. But he and Oosthuizen are fortunate in this regard – many others around them travel around the PGA Tour just trying to make ends meet.

Ben Martin is a name few will be familiar with. The 25-year-old, who turned pro in 2010, earned his card for the 2011 PGA Tour. He spent 27 weeks on the road that year, and was away from home for more than a month at a time on occasions. He mostly travelled alone, without his girlfriend or even a regular caddie. This isolating year culminated in a 153rd-place finish on the money list – one which cost him his card.

“The only thing I wasn’t really prepared for was the amount of golf and travel that you do on the PGA Tour,” Martin said in 2011. “It’s something I don’t think you can prepare for.”

Martin played the Web.com Tour in 2012, but was unable to regain his PGA Tour card. He must now continue to make the expensive commutes to each tournament, with no guarantee of a payday ahead.

Whether you’re a golfer hunting down a place at the top of the World Rankings, or an aspiring journeyman, there is no getting around the travel involved in this career. Travelling is a passion for so many, but this isn’t the same thing. Even though Oosthuizen visited more than ten countries last year, he wasn’t a tourist. He was just someone who landed at an airport, got driven to a hotel, played golf, and perhaps went out for dinner in the evening. But, deprived of time with his family and friends, I’d say he did his job sensationally well.

Those who gasp at the money these guys earn are not aware of the full picture. These players took a massive gamble to pursue a career in golf. But even at the pinnacle of their discipline, they still need to make sacrifices many of us wouldn’t. Louis and his colleagues deserve every cent they make. After all, it’s not a life that I would want – would you?

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