Mark Baldwin ('06) was the 2005 BIG EAST Conference Player of the Year and a three-time all-conference performer at Notre Dame (Matt Cashore)

The Pro Golf Inferno

Aug 26, 2013

Below is a featured blog post from former Notre Dame men’s golfer Mark Baldwin (’06), who recently won the Manchester Open in Manchester, Conn. on Aug. 5 for his sixth career professional victory.

Since graduating from Notre Dame in 2006, I’ve stepped on the first tee of professional golf tournaments all around the world; the sweltering hot professional mini-tours of the deep south, the pressure-packed PGA Tour Q-School tournament in California, Malaysian tee boxes serving as beds for Kimono Dragons, and on South Korean courses surrounded by cheering members of the Korean Mafia. Unlike job interviews in the real world, my Notre Dame degree doesn’t offer any edge on that first tee box. At Notre Dame, you had the team and the Fighting Irish to back you up. The professional players I’m competing against now don’t particularly care where I went to school. The only degree that matters is the extent to which one believes in one’s golf ability.

Whether you’re hitting that opening shot at The Warren Course at Notre Dame, or Sentosa Golf and Country Club in Singapore, in professional golf, a player knows each journey around the course will be different and hugely challenging; if a player is to contend, the scorecard boxes aren’t big enough for mistakes. That knowledge combined with years of preparation, determination and competitive drive can set fire in one’s veins. This blazing sensation is heightened dramatically when one is in contention to win a tournament. Your mouth goes dry like you’d been sitting in a dentist chair for hours, heart rates race as if you were being chased by a grizzly bear, muscles tighten like you’d spent hours in the gym. It’s at this point when a professional golfer gets to test their metal. It’s in the heat of battle when one learns their inner most beliefs. Winning players are able to manage these strong feelings, controlling their thoughts, heart rate and remaining focused on a single task. It’s a feeling unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. This competitive inferno is why I’ve been pursuing the highest levels of professional golf since graduating from Notre Dame.

There are far easier ways to make a living than playing professional golf. For most players attempting to challenge the world’s elite must first prove worthy by beating the ranks of the “minor league.” This is called mini-tour golf and it is essentially gambling. A player buys into a tournament for upwards of $1,200 and plays for everyone else’s money. Once expenses are added, a player can be invested into a given week for up to $2,500. This means in a typical $150,000 purse where approximately 60 players earn a paycheck out of a full field of up to 156 players, a player must finish around 15th just to break even. Players might gamble up to 25 weeks per year leading to the infamous PGA Tour Q-School, golf’s “Fifth Major”. Q-School determines whether a player has a future on a PGA Tour. It’s the biggest series of job interviews in the business. Competing week in and week out adapts players mentalities and schedules to the demands and routines of competition. One thing the vast majority of players earning their PGA Tour cards have in common is the competitive experience they’ve built playing week in and week out. Success can often come from learning how to manage and align skills in the middle of the competitive inferno. While mini-tour gambling is necessary at times, more opportunity exists by leaving the comforts of the U.S. for foreign lands.

Understanding how challenging it can be to be profitable going the mini-tour gambling route, I took another path in 2007. The road less traveled by American professional golfers is to go overseas to Europe or Asia, where tournaments have full sponsorship, entry fees are minimal, and purses are well-funded. I played on the Asian and Korean Tours in 2007-08, an experience I wrote about extensively on my blog at the time. I won the first stage of Asian Tour Qualifying School, lived in Kuala Lumpur and Taipei, found myself in the cross hairs between North and South Korea, and was an honorary guest of the Korean mafia. There is no way to adequately sum up an entire year of traveling across Asia and competing in dozens of countries in one blog post. I will say that often, golf requires a player “get out of their own way” by being able to quiet their mind and play from instinct. My Asian golf journey was the ultimate adventure and required constant adaptation and learning to survive.

In 2010, I gained Canadian Tour status. Similar to overseas tours, the Canadian Tour is under the umbrella of the International Federation of PGA Tours providing benefits, bigger purses and more prestigious tournaments to players. I’ve been off and on this tour (now called PGA Tour Canada) since first playing in 2010. In the middle of 2011, I was suffering from a tendon and cartilage injury in my left knee. The injury left me sidelined for half of 2011 and most of 2012. There were moments during this dark period where I wondered whether I’d ever have the chance to contend again. I believe the worst thing that can happen to an athlete is an injury taking them away from their sport for good. The mental anguish of knowing you had more to give and could have done better forever lingers in a former athlete’s mind. I was determined to get back knowing I had so much more to give. It took a while to trust that my knee would hold up under the substantial force of my golf swing. With some swing changes to ensure longevity of my golf swing, I eventually returned to competition and began once again shooting under par.

This year, PGA Tour Canada is giving away five exempt tour cards to the next level on the professional golf hierarchy, the Tour. I certainly haven’t hit my stride on tour yet, but the last few weeks have been very exciting. At The Greater Bangor Open (July 25-27), a long running tournament open to professionals and amateurs, I played my way into contention and had a great chance to win coming down the stretch. While I didn’t capitalize on the opportunities that would have propelled me to the winner’s circle, I finished tied for third. On Aug. 5, I nabbed a victory at the Manchester Open, a one-day professional event with a strong field of players. Winning at any level in professional golf is elusive, and to finally win after overcoming a knee injury and many disappointing finishes was truly validating and exciting. Armed with this injection of encouragement and confidence, I am ready to get back into contention on PGA Tour Canada and stoke the competitive fire. Just like my time at Notre Dame, I love the constant challenge and the daily opportunity to improve.

You can learn more about Mark and follow his tournament results on Twitter @markbaldwin1.