PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It’s a misfortune Jared Wolfe didn’t expect to endure.
A pro for nearly a decade, Wolfe, 32, had been toiling on PGA Tour Latinoamerica for the past three seasons. Last summer, he finally gave himself an ultimatum: If he didn’t earn one of the five available Korn Ferry Tour cards, he’d do something else in 2020. Medical sales, probably.
But Wolfe finished in the top 3 in his last two Latinoamerica starts and placed third on the money list. That earned him a second promotion to the Korn Ferry Tour, and this time he made it count, winning the second event of the year. Six months after contemplating a career change, the holy grail – the PGA Tour – was now within reach.
Then the pandemic shut down the tour for three-plus months. And then they announced there’d be no promotion this season, postponing graduation for the top 25 players until fall 2021.
The news hit hard. “My first thought was, All right, we’re going to have double the points now, this and that,” Wolfe said last week, “and then I said, ‘You know what? Stop. Stop thinking about this. Let’s be excited about the fact that we could potentially have 40 more events to win twice and get the (instant) promotion. If we focus on that, even if we fall short, we’re going to be all right. It’ll be enough to get into position and get a Tour card.”
And if things don’t work out? Seems he’s already made a few connections. Out of work in the middle of a pandemic, Wolfe took a job in early March with Rev-Med, a sales organization in Jacksonville that offers ancillary medical services. He cold-called clinics to sell and raise awareness about PCR testing for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
“It’s a fun, challenging, sales-type deal that was competitive,” he said. “You eat what you kill type of thing. If you do well, you’re going to get paid for it, and if you don’t, you’re spending gas money. It’s the same thing as mini-tour golf.”
Wolfe worked for about two months and pocketed a few thousand bucks, all while keeping his game sharp for the restart.
“After doing it for a few months, I’m happy to be back playing golf,” he said.
Walking around TPC Sawgrass last week, Wolfe said he’d never seen a field of players and caddies in such a good mood. But that first-day-of-school feeling will soon give way to the harsh reality of life on a developmental tour, a traveling circus that now plays 17 of the next 18 weeks, for mostly $600,000 purses, with no immediate payoff.
Wolfe might not have anticipated being in position to earn a Tour card this fall, but that was the expectation at the start of the year for future studs like Davis Riley and Will Zalatoris, both 23. Riley has already won once this season and currently sits second in points. In a normal year, he’d basically be guaranteed a promotion, but now he’s in the same position as Wolfe: picking his spots in a jampacked schedule, trying to give himself the best opportunity to win twice more and earn an instant promotion.
“It’s a bummer,” Riley said, “but there’s not much you can do about it. All I can do is control what I can and try to be prepared every week.”
Riley is roommates in Dallas with Zalatoris, his former U.S. Junior Amateur opponent (2014) and another talented youngster for whom much was expected. During the tour’s hiatus Zalatoris played every day for six weeks, oftentimes with Jordan Spieth and Tony Romo. All of Zalatoris’ hard work appeared to pay off – he played in the final group Sunday in the Korn Ferry Challenge, and his tie for sixth improved his position from 18th to 14th on the mega-season points list.
“I’m looking at it as an opportunist,” he said. “I can get my card that way and carry a lot of confidence coming out of it. If I play good golf, I’m going to be on the PGA Tour. Davis and I both know we’re capable of winning three times and getting the automatic exemption.”
There is one small perk at the end of this portion of the season: The top 10 in points will receive limited PGA Tour status for next season and gain entry into opposite-field events. But barring a big week in Bermuda, in late October, it likely won’t be in the players’ best interest to chase those starts in 2021 and further jeopardize their standing on the Korn Ferry Tour.
“You really just need to ride it out,” Jonathan Randolph said.
And Randolph is used to that end-of-season drama, bouncing back and forth between the PGA and Korn Ferry tours since 2015. Between the end of the Korn Ferry season last September and then the pandemic, he’s basically had off seven of the past nine months – the longest break of his golf career, at any level. So, he’s worked on his game. He’s gotten in better shape. He’s spent more time with his growing family.
“It’s filled me up in ways that golf can’t fill me up,” he said. “I love my job. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. But you can’t get as full with one week at home, and I’ll be home three times between now and October. That’s a side of it that people can’t see.”
There’s a cost to chasing his dream, and it’s why, like Wolfe, he can’t help but feel as though the clock is ticking.
“I’m frustrated because I want to play the PGA Tour next year,” he said. “I’m 31. I’m in my prime. I’m supposed to be entering some smooth-sailing years, and it feels like I’m in purgatory. But I look forward to the opportunity to prove to myself that I’m in my prime.”
A larger sample size should produce a stronger graduating class, but there’s bound to be a few oddball cases in a roughly 50-event mega-season. Guys who struggle this season but catch fire the next. Those who win but don’t earn cards. College seniors who start rolling next summer and steal a few spots.
Still, a simple truth remains.
“The good ones,” Randolph said, “always find a way to get it done.”