Dream of the LPGA comes at a high cost

Casey Grice earned her way onto the LPGA Tour to be a part of the 2016 rookie class. In an individual sport like golf, Grice will be responsible for paying for her own travel and expenses of those who support her. Scott A. Miller/Symetra Tour.

Casey Grice is about to live her dream.

The 24-year-old from College Station, Texas, first started playing golf under her grandfather's tutelage at age 12. Within a few years, she won the high school state title, then became part of a perennial top-10 team at the University of North Carolina. Upon turning pro, she played one year on the developmental Symetra Tour, finishing 24th on the money list in 2014. Grice then competed in Q School, lasting 10 holes of a playoff before being relegated to conditional status.

That afforded her exactly one start on the LPGA this season.

Once again grinding away on the Symetra Tour, she finished in the top 10 in four of her last six events to clinch status as a full-time LPGA member for the upcoming 2016 season.

Which means now, finally, Grice is about to see her dream realized.

"All of the hard work I've put in has paid off," she says. "I'm a little nervous about the whole process but so excited to travel to all of these different places."

Just how different? Grice has never traveled outside of the continental United States. Though next year's LPGA schedule has yet to be released, the one finishing up at this week's CME Group Tour Championship included 32 tournaments in 15 different countries on four continents. One player, Morgan Pressel, has competed in 26 events and lists year-to-date mileage on her Twitter profile at 117,750 and counting.

Rookies such as Grice might be living out their dreams, but they're doing more than just competing on the world's most elite tour against the best players. They're traveling against them, too.

That presents a different set of problems, one which too often goes unnoticed by those who believe reaching the game's highest level comes accompanied by all of the luxuries afforded other upper-echelon professional athletes. On the LPGA, purses remain a fraction of those handed out on the PGA Tour, while sponsorships are hardly automatic. Instead, players cut corners to keep costs down while relying on relatives, friends and anyone else to pitch in and keep that dream alive.

During the offseason -- and if time allows, even during the season -- Grice will perform odd jobs from golf lessons to babysitting to substitute teaching just so she can earn some extra money to help pursue her professional goals.

"Financial is everybody's biggest concern," explains Rachel Rohanna, another member of the impending 2016 rookie class. "I've been fortunate to have a good sponsor and great parents helping me for the last three years. Hopefully, they will again, but I'm looking at all kinds of options. We've got to figure out a way to do it somehow. Maybe I should sell my truck to be able to play the first 8-10 tournaments."

"People think it's just a glamorous lifestyle. To an extent, it is. But there's a lot of hard work and preparation behind the scenes. I think people miss that." Casey Grice

Rohanna quickly suggests with a laugh that her 2005 Dodge Ram is available to the first $100,000 bidder. Even with that high scale of inflation, similar offers don't exist from these golfers' male counterparts. Ian Poulter, for example, has never sold a Ferrari from his fleet to help defray travel expenses.

Those on the LPGA who have already lived the dream have an acute understanding of this dichotomy -- even if people outside of the game don't get it.

"A lot of my friends who don't know the world that I live in, they check me out online and see I made a certain amount of money, and they're like, 'Wow that's a lot of money,'" says Kelly Shon, who played collegiately at Princeton and just concluded her first campaign in the big leagues. "They don't understand all of the other expenses that come with it. In team sports, coaches, travel and hotels are paid for, whereas for us, we need to pay for not only our own expenses, but people on our team -- parents, managers, coaches. That requires a lot of money.

"I don't think it helps to play with those thoughts in your mind. Until I need to write the check, I try not to think about it."

Adds fellow 2015 rookie Jackie Stoelting: "People hear you're playing the LPGA and think, 'Oh my goodness, that's so much fun.' It is fun, but people don't see how much of a financial struggle it is. They don't get it. It's fun being able to travel the world, but we have to be our own travel agent, book flights and hotels and get ourselves there."

If the outside world doesn't realize the impact of playing a global tour on a budget, at least the LPGA's executive branch can offer a soothing word of comfort. Stoelting recalled one Sunday night this season, trying to make her way to a crowded counter at a bustling airport, when she noticed a familiar face in line with her.

"There were just massive amounts of people. The commissioner, Mike Whan, was in front of us. He just said, 'This is the living-the-dream part that people don't know about.'"

Whan began his current role six years ago. Since then, the LPGA has expanded to more tournaments in more countries with larger purses than ever before.

All of which has made him a popular figure among his constituency, but Whan's business acumen isn't the only reason he draws rave reviews. The tour's eighth commissioner doesn't sugarcoat anything, especially when it comes to preparing young players for life on the road.

"Unfortunately, as I always tell players and agents and dads, I wish I could, but I don't deliver a guaranteed career or a guaranteed income," he explains. "We provide women an opportunity to pursue their dreams. I'm going to provide them the opportunity to make more than they could on any other tour. There's no other tour that's close to the LPGA. I don't provide a guarantee. I just provide that opportunity."

Whan often tells new LPGA members the cautionary tale of Meg Mallon. Upon reaching the tour years ago, Mallon told people that she'd finally made it. After a season that included just three made cuts -- only one of which concluded with a paycheck -- she found herself back in Q School that fall.

Of course, that story had a happy ending for the four-time major champion. The transition to this highest level often doesn't end this way, which is one reason the LPGA implements not only rookie training, but a program to help young players balance tour life by asking questions of veteran leaders in an official capacity.

Spearheaded by former player Heather Daly-Donofrio, now the LPGA's chief tour operations officer, POD Partners is, in her description, a rookie-centered, relationship-building program designed to help rookies assimilate onto the LPGA Tour both on and off the golf course.

Launched last year, the POD program is an acronym for one peer (active player), one on-site (LPGA staff member) and one distance partner (retired player), each of whom team with three or four rookies to help ease the transition.

"The POD provides an avenue for the rookie to ask questions and seek advice," Daly-Donofrio explains. "It is amazing how many times a rookie will raise an issue in the POD, only to find that the other rookies in the POD are experiencing the same thing. It provides a certain level of comfort to know that others have the same questions and/or challenges."

Daniela Iacobelli, a 2013 rookie, insists this program is a reflection of the general attitude on tour.

"The girls out there are very welcoming; they're very willing to help," she says. "If I ask [two-time major champion] Brittany Lincicome the best time to fly out to a certain tournament, she's very willing to help. That's a huge thing."

It should also come as a source of relief for those about to embark on an LPGA career. Even the benefits of living out a lifelong dream can be weighed down by the financial burden of attempting to afford all of the necessary travel.

Not everyone understands that a golden ticket to the game's highest level doesn't offer a road paved with gold.

"People think it's just a glamorous lifestyle," Grice says. "To an extent, it is. But there's a lot of hard work and preparation behind the scenes. I think people miss that."