This week the PGA Tour season ends in Atlanta with the Tour Championship at East Lake. The payout this week is $45 million. That’s not a typo. The 30 players who made it to Atlanta will split $45 million with $15 million going to the winner. The eighth place finisher takes home $1.1 million. Finish last and you still get about $800,000. And that’s just part of the $70 million that made up the FedEx Cup winnings on Tour this year.
That’s why getting to the PGA Tour is a giant step for any professional golfer’s career. And that’s why Vince Covello’s story is so compelling.
Covello is 36 years old and has lived in North Florida for almost 20 years. He’s a Philadelphia native but after his family vacationed here a few times and came to watch The Players at TPC, they moved here. Vince was graduated from Nease High School in 2001 and went to UNF to play golf. He turned pro in 2004 and has been trying to make it to the PGA Tour ever since.
And this year, after 15 years of trying, he made it. He credits some of his Philadelphia upbringing for him being able to hang in there and keep trying.
“Being from there had a lot to do with my success,” he explained. “It’s a hard working town, people are hustling, trying to find a way to get it done. People don’t take no for an answer”
How big is it to get on the PGA Tour? Vince won once on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour this year and won about $165,000 playing 19 events. Justin Thomas also played 19 events on the PGA Tour this year and won once as well. He won just over $5 million.
In his profile of Covello after Vince’s win in March on the Web.com Tour in Louisiana, Times-Union golf writer Gary Smits compared him to Rocky or the NFL Eagles’ Vince Papale and even the 1985 Villanova basketball team. And he fits that mold: all underdogs who became champions.
“I never stopped smiling,” Covello said of August 11th, the day he got his card at Pumpkin Ridge in Portland. “It’s an elite list of guys 25 of the 180 or so who played the tour this year. I couldn’t get enough of it.”
He admitted it was a bit of a surreal experience to finally achieve his goal. Playing all over the world, gaining experience and trying to make some money as a professional golfer included stops in Australia, Chile, Mexico, Scotland, Austria, Turkey and Argentina among others.
You need to be resilient to continue that quest through the years and all of those stops, but Covello says there’s a bit of an art form to it as well.
“That’s always the battle,” he noted as he prepared for this week’s Korn Ferry Tour Championship at Victoria National in Indiana.
“It’s not the most lucrative business until you get to watch us on TV. It’s an art in itself just staying out there. Just knowing how to get around, save your money. Guys run out of cash and backing who can really play. You have to be fiscally aware. That’s an art in itself.”
Between 2012 and 2013 Vince went from missing getting his PGA Tour card by a shot at qualifying school (“I missed a putt on the last hole.”) to losing his status at 30 years old and had no place to play.
“It was a crushing moment. I went back to Monday qualifiers and played in Canada,” he explained. “It’s a downgrade in your life. It’s a tough walk. There are 300 guys trying to shoot 65 on Monday’s to play on the Korn Ferry Tour.”
Winning in March brought some new pressures that Covello didn’t fully expect. Some of it from inside his own head.
“There was more attention that I wasn’t used to,” he said as a first time winner. “I was the 4th ranked player out there for a minute. I knew my game was in a good spot but sometimes that makes it harder. You do things out of your comfort zone.”
After playing well the week after his win, he missed three straight cuts. That’s when he brought his coach and mentor, former PGA Tour player Anders Forsbrand, out on tour to caddy for him to see what was happening.
“It’s been my biggest help, working with him,” he said. “Almost a father figure since my dad passed away in 2009. “The golf knowledge of course, but also the mentoring. Especially since he’s walked that journey. He’s been able to talk about how to get from playing bad to playing better.”
After this week, Covello will be “zippered in” with the top 25 finishers at the Korn Ferry Tour Championship giving him status at minimum inside the top 175 players eligible to compete on the PGA Tour. He’s studied the schedule and expects to get into around 16 Tour stops with his status. The rest will depend on how he plays.
“The rookies get reshuffled every five weeks,” he said. “So there’s no time to slack off. You need to come out ready to play.”
Even though he’ll turn 37 this November, Covello isn’t the oldest rookie in his graduating class. Scott Harrington is 38 years old, a Portland native and played well in his hometown at the year’s final event to earn his card. Still, rookies are rookies in any sport.
“One piece of advice I was given,” Vince said with a laugh. “Don’t let the other guys in the field know your hotel room number if you’re staying at the resort. Guys will charge stuff to the rookies.”
Knowing how to travel, practice and rest are things Covello says he figured out early in his well-traveled career. But he says he’s learned a few things on the course about himself in just the past few seasons.
“The last few years I figured out how to keep a job,” he said. “I’ve learned you can keep the stress off, play freer. You have to figure out how to move forward past your good and bad moments. How to hit your best shot as your next shot.”
Covello has now been on both sides of that ceremony at the end of the regular season. While a few tears were shed with those close to him who helped him achieve his goal, it was mostly joy he felt standing on that green with his PGA Tour card.
“I’ve been on that green watching my friends graduating in the past,” he explained. “I told my self I wanted to be that guy toasting champagne. I never put my little card down. I walked around with it one hand in front of my chest and a glass of champagne in the other.”
“I’m looking forward to getting my feet wet,” Covello said. “But golf is still golf. We’re all trying to hit it down the middle and on the green and make a birdie putt.”
Here’s hoping he makes plenty of those.