Minutes after Joel Kribel wrapped his Players Cup round, he stood on the Pine Ridge Golf Club practice green knocking balls down while squirrels chattered their mimicry of polite applause.
Oh, it's not such a bad way to live out a cloying July day, embraced by the grass and the trees and the yellow patio umbrellas baking in the sun. Maybe this is what people imagine, when they gush that Kribel is living their pro golfer dream: A life gilt in country club granite, crisp white pants and fragrant greens.
What they don't see: Kribel's back hurts, he's sharing hotel rooms on the PGA Canada Tour to save cash, and he hasn't seen his two young kids in weeks. They're back home in Phoenix while their father fights his way back up the chain of links.
"It's tough to be away from them," says Kribel, who played the PGA Tour a decade ago. "Being a father has changed things a lot. But it makes my time at home that much more special, when I can be around them. They don't care if I shot 65 or 85."
On Thursday, Kribel shot 70, in the top 31 of the 156 golfers in the Players Cup field. The best of them will make a bundle, $27,000 for whoever wins the Winnipeg event of the nine-tournament tour. The others won't earn very much, though. A couple of thousand bucks for the top 10 maybe, a net loss for the rest of the pack. They're swinging less for glory, more to grab their chance: the top five money-winners will get a pass to the PGA Tour's developmental Web.com circuit. That's the prize.
The low cash stakes make for a lot of scrimping, a lot of shared rental cars and air mattresses thrown between hotel beds. There's no private jets or squads of handlers on these lower rungs, so the athletes band together. Otherwise, it can be a very lonely life out here, isolated by endless highway drives.
"On the PGA Tour, guys don't really hang out together," says Yohann Benson, who was among the Players Cup leaders Thursday and caddied on the PGA Tour earlier this year. "They don't have to share rooms. You don't have the friendship we have out here. Out here, we have to be friends to cut costs, because the money's not good enough to survive."
Benson says this with a shrug and a grin: He's made only $1,400 so far on the 2013 PGA Tour Canada, but at 31 the steepness of the uphill battle doesn't seem to bother him. True, the Quebecer has seen some dismal moments on the lower-level tours -- there was that bad hotel outside Vancouver once, with no hot water and doors that wouldn't lock -- but he was always a rough 'n' tumble kid. He can handle this.
"You tell me to go to the library and read a book and make myself smarter, no chance -- but if you tell me to jump off a bridge and there's four feet of water, I'm in," he laughs, rattling off a list of concussions from youthful skiing and snow racing misadventures. "I put my mom through hell. She was probably happy when I started golfing, 'cause it's pretty hard to get hurt."
Benson was already 18 when he first tried his swing after taking a minimum-wage job cleaning balls at a small Montreal course. Within three years, he was competing and even made it to the U.S. Open, though he didn't make the cut. But he was hooked, and the touring life agreed with his jovial personality: of the other 155 golfers in the Players Cup, Benson estimates he's poked fun at every single one. It's a badge of pride for him to keep the mood light: golfers can get so serious, sometimes.
Still, when he speaks of the veterans on the tour, an admiration bubbles forth: he points to 35-year-old Oshawa, Ont. golfer Derek Gillespie. Both players shot the same score on Thursday, and although Benson is only four years younger, he speaks of Gillespie as a sort of elder statesman. "He's been out here forever," Benson says. "He's the ultimate journeyman. He does everything well, he thinks well. He's a guy I look up to."
Sitting on a Pine Ridge patio an hour later, Gillespie blushes when told of this glowing scouting report. He's never heard that before, he says, and supposes it's just that he doesn't let frustration overflow onto the course. Some guys do. "Maybe, I think I'm just kind of a normal dude," he says. "We've all had our fun, and when I play poorly... some guys are really not fun to play with, throwing clubs. I've never been that way. Maybe some F-bombs here and there."
Even those are fewer these days, now that he's living out a true second chance: in 2011, Gillespie was dozing in a car driving down a Las Vegas highway, when his friend fell asleep behind the wheel. There was a jolt, and then a swerve. The car flipped, shattering the golfer's leg and ribs. He was in rehab for months, and after he could swing and breathe in the greens again, he saw his game renewed. He made every cut and two top 10s on the Canadian Tour last year.
"You almost die, and you're like, 'What am I thinking, getting a job? This is great,'" he says. "I just realized how much I loved it. At the end of the day, you're playing golf, and I know I can do it. That's why I wake up every morning. You always try to get better."
And that's the ultimate driver, for these journeymen golfers working to put a big-league game together: Kribel says he's "not ready to get a real job yet," and speaks of the stubborn fire inside that promises he can get back to the form that put him on the PGA Tour in 2003-04. Now that the former Canadian Tour is the PGA Tour Canada, with the chance to move up to the Web.com Tour, Gillespie says it's "a no-brainer to keep plugging away," and still feels the thrill of a ball sailing straight down the fairway.
As for Benson, he's going with the flow. If he can ferret out the one bad round he tends to shoot, he figures he's got a decent shot of cracking the big time. Besides, it's not like he wants to change. "What else am I gonna do?" he says and laughs. "I'll never complain. Sure, after I play bad, I hate my life -- but it's because of the way I played, it has nothing to do with my life. I enjoy what I do, and don't want to do anything else really."
He pauses and adds a caveat, in case anyone is listening: "Unless if somebody comes to me with an idea that I'm going to make a million dollars a year doing something I really enjoy doing," he says, and winks. "Otherwise, I might as well do this."