Life lessons of the Futures Tour

BLOOMFIELD, Conn. -- Lesson No. 1 on the Futures Tour: Your vehicle is your life. There are no courtesy cars on the developmental minor league for the LPGA, no wide-eyed volunteer chauffeurs willing to dispatch players to their loftiest destinations. Traveling from tournament sites such as Lima, Ohio, to Hammond, Ind., to this week's scheduled stop in the heart of New England requires putting pedal to the metal without assistance.

So you can excuse Angela Buzminski if she seems a tad cantankerous while standing on the practice range, preparing for this week's Cigna Chip In For A Cure Golf Classic. Her own personal mode of transportation has been in the shop for four days and, well, it's not exactly ideal timing. "Odds are, your car is going to break down at some point," she says. "Just happens to be this week."

This week, Buzminski just happens to be 123rd on the tour's money list. The ranking doesn't seem too unsightly until you consider the bottom line: In 10 starts this season, she's earned a grand total of $972. That's 10 weeks of fuel, food, lodging and, of course, car repairs -- all on a pretty tight budget. At 35, and coming off four consecutive seasons as a member of the LPGA, the Oshawa, Ontario, native knows she'd better have a backup plan to supplement the lack of income.

"I like to paint houses in the offseason. It's very cathartic for me," says Buzminski, who by comparison earned $8,829 for making just one LPGA cut a year ago. "I'll usually have enough people by the end of one winter that say, 'Oh, if you're free, can you do some stuff for me next winter?' And then I'll have a bunch of jobs lined up."

Which leads to Lesson No. 2 on the Futures Tour: This is professional golf, but it's hardly the glamorous, glorious life of Tiger Woods or Annika Sorenstam.

"It is an apprenticeship," says Zayra Calderon, who has been the president and CEO of the Futures Tour since 2000. "When you do an apprenticeship and an internship, you don't get paid a lot of money. You go because you learn a lot."

The learning process is evident, as all five of last season's Futures graduates currently rank in the top 80 on the LPGA money list, with four in the top 50. But before receiving such status, each player had to pay her dues in the sticks, cashing checks that pale in comparison with those on the more prominent tour.

So, let's start with the numbers game. Song-Hee Kim leads the Futures Tour with $48,686 in earnings this season, a figure that would place her 95th among LPGA players.

That's the good news.

For others, the most common theme sounds like a familiar refrain from a Snoop Dogg tune: "Got my mind on my money, and my money on my mind." According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual U.S. salary was $36,764 in 2002. Even if that number were to have held steady during the past four years, it leaves Kim as the only Futures player above that level with just seven tournaments remaining in this season's 19-event schedule.

It gets more depressing for those trying to earn a paycheck on the ladies' minor league circuit. Based on the current U.S. minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, an employee who works 40 hours each week at that rate would tally $10,812 for the year. Sound paltry? It's more than all but 28 Futures Tour players have accrued this season.

"There's no point in thinking about money, because we're not making that much," says Mollie Fankhauser, who's sixth on the money list with $25,206. "It's frustrating for a lot of us, but we're on our way to the LPGA, so hopefully it's worth it."

Despite its apparent low profile, the Futures Tour is actually big-time compared with dozens of other professional tours around the country. For the uninitiated, the Futures is to the LPGA as the Nationwide Tour is to the PGA Tour. Sort of. While the Nationwide circuit is owned and operated by the PGA Tour, the Futures Tour is an independent entity, with a relationship to the LPGA that was formalized in 1999. That year, the top three money-winners received promotions to the big league; in 2003, that number was increased to five.

By comparison, 20 Nationwide Tour players receive post-season promotions each year, and long-standing rumors have circulated that the number will increase, perhaps to the point where Qualifying School becomes irrelevant. The theory is that stronger players will surface out of those who fare well over an entire season rather than simply a six-day span. With so fewer exemptions on the Futures Tour, lengthier stays are ensured for most competitors.

"These players are going to be here two, three, four years with one goal," Calderon says. "They have one reason to be here -- it's not big purses, it's not big money. ... They are here to see if they can make it to the next level, to make a career on the LPGA."

And many often do. Recent grads include Lorena Ochoa, Grace Park, Christina Kim and Seon-Hwa Lee, who led last season's Futures Tour money list and won in her 12th LPGA start after a pair of runner-up finishes.

"It is the stepping stone to the LPGA," says Stacy Prammanasudh, who earned a promotion to the LPGA following the 2003 season and is 17th on its money list. "You do not play great courses and do not have all the benefits that we have on the LPGA and you are not going to make a lot of money. It is called a developmental tour and that is what it is. You are there to hone your game and get used to traveling and competing week in and week out. That is what it is there for. I enjoyed my time there and got a lot of experience and I would not change anything."

That brings us to Lesson No. 3 on the Futures Tour: Experience is more valuable than any paycheck. It's a shared theme of the current tour members, many of whom have overstayed their own boundaries by remaining on tour longer than expected.

"Every year, I say that this is my last year," says Jana Peterkova, who's in her fourth full season on tour. "But I just love the golf so much. You keep trying and trying. ... I guess I'm going to keep doing it."

Such is life on the Futures Tour, where dreams and passions supersede zeroes on a paycheck. Many will toil until that fateful time comes, when the lessons of the tour prove valuable no longer, their intended goals too unattainable. Others, though, will get the call to the big league, battling for leaderboard space with the likes of Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb. That is, after all, the ultimate goal of the Futures Tour player.

Perhaps Fankhauser summed it up best: "I don't expect to be out here for a long time, and I don't think anybody does. Nobody wants to be out here year after year, because this isn't where we want to be. We want to be on the LPGA."

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com