Fred Gibson grew up in Sugar Ray Leonard's home town of Palmer Park. "We both had a tough life," Gibson said. "But you always read about him now. Even when I finish first, it hardly gets mentioned."
Leonard has carved out a large portion of fame and fortune for himself with a sensational boxing career. Gibson is struggling to carve out a stable life from a golf career that started belatedly after his wandering youth.
While Leonard fights for millions of dollars, Gibson, an assistant pro at Germantown Country Club, strives to dominate the Middle Atlantic PGA tour, where $1,000 is a healthy first prize. Even at 32, he still dreams of attacking golf's major leagues -- the PGA tour -- although he realizes history is against him.
"Hardly anyone has come out of this area and gone on and done well on the PGA," he said."But I won the area match play championship last year and the trophy listed the previous winners. Lou Graham's name was on it.
"If he can do it, why can't I? Lou Graham never dominated the Middle Atlantic when he played here and then he won the U.S. Open one year. Nothing's impossible. Just ask Sugar Ray."
Almost every Monday and Friday from April to October the Middle Atlantic PGA stages a tourament on courses throughout its section, which stretches from Maryland to Virginia to a piece of West Virginia panhandle.
The Kemper Open drew more people in four days than the Middle Atlantic will attaract for its 50-plus events over those seven months. The $400,000 Kemper awarded almost twice as much money as a year's MAPGA purses and received probably 100 times the publicity that the MAPGA can muster in a year.
But for many amateurs and club professonals in this region, the MAPGA circuit is the lifeline to competitive golf. It is hardly glamorous, and its best players would be also-rans on the PGA tour. But for both the young, restless turks like Gibson and the established veterans, the Middle Atlantic is the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA rolled into one continuous summer of golf.
"You have to realize where your level of competition is," said Larry Ringer, head pro at the Naval Academy and one of the MAPGA's dominant players. "You have to say, 'I'm a better club professional than a tournament player.' I try to do the best I can to serve my members and then do the best I can in these local tournaments."
Ringer is one of a small number of Middle Atlantic players who stuck their toes in the PGA Tour ocean and found the waters to be far rougher than they had anticipated. They've returned , shorter in cash but longer in knowledge about themselves and their game.
"You are going up against trained gladiators on the tour," said Mel Rifman, now an instructor at the BWI Golf Center. "The good ones have been playing golf for most of their lives. They have the mental toughness to stand up week after week.
"The tour is an odyssey through life. It's an experience that I'm glad I had. But it just wasn't cut out for me."
Rifman is much more comfortable with his priorities reordered: he is a teacher first now, then a player. And the same can be said for most of his peers on the Middle Atlantic circuit.
Except in rare cases, the MAPGA tour does not provide anything approaching a living wage for its participants. Their regular jobs at golf courses and driving ranges supply the bulk of their income.
Only the first five or six money winners on the circuit make the $5,000 or so needed to exceed the tournament expenses. Otherwise, the best the majority can do is break even. And few can ever achieve what Mark Alwin, assistant at Baltimore's Woodholme Country Club, did a few years ago, when he won more than $10,000, which kept him in double-knits and waterproof shoes for a while longer.
Last year, the first four money winners earned between $5,000 and $6,500 with the highest (alwin) picking up $6,412. Thirteen pros in all totaled at least $3,000 each. Many won much less.
Yet the Middle Atlantic has grown steadily for the last 30 years, adding tournaments, players and prize money almost annually (this year's total purses are about $250,000). Its heart is the one-day pro-am event, which pumps life into the organization by involving member clubs and amateurs of all skills and handicaps with the region's outstanding pros.
"The pro-am is the reason most of us play," said Jim Seeley, head pro at Prince Georges Country Club. "You certainly realize that you are doing this to have fun. If you are in it entirely for money, you are going to be disappointed an awful lot because it's hard to win and it's hard to make money.
"If it wasn't fun, it would be foolish to give up what probalby is your only day off of the week. I play because Ineed the competitive golf, but also enjoy the social aspect of the circuit. It gives you an opportunity to take your members to other courses and give them a chance to play in some good company."
The pro-ams are set up with the amatueur, ranging from scratch to 30 handicap and above, in mind. A maximum of 64 pros can play, captaining each of 64 teams. The other team members usually include two amateurs from the pro's club and one from the host club. Everyone plays from the white or middle, tees, everyone uses carts and host clubs are asked to establish pin placements that won't make the amateurs struggle.
The teams vote for both net and gross best ball honors and the amateurs compete for individual awards in both categories. The pros' major lure is the tournament purse, although they receive money for playing on the winning gross and net teams.
The pro purse is derived from entry fees ($25 per pro) plus any "added" money put up by the host club. These additional funds usually range from $500 to $3,000. A third of the pro field wins prize money, which varies from about $315 for the winner of an average pro-am tournament to $20 for the final placement.
Around six to eight team net prizes per pro-am also are handed out, which could mean an additional $95 for the victorious pro (the winning amateurs receive an equal amount in gift certificates that have to be used at the host club's golf shop). The one gross prize is worth $50 for the pro.
Without the pro-ams, the circuit wouldn't exist. "You couldn't get many clubs to host an all-pro field," Ringer said. "That would mean tying up a course for a day and not having any of their own members play. These tournaments are good PR for the pros."
So the pros have learned to accept -- and many times enjoy -- these one-day events, 39 of which are scheduled this year.
But they are kept afloat, both financially and competitively, by the tour's special events, like the sectional championship, the Charles Town Golf Classic (with a $10,000 total purse), and such championships as the two-man, the pro-assistant, the pro-junior, the pro-senior-junior, the match play and the Middle Atlantic Open.
"Those are the events where you can make some money," said Gibson, who admits he depends on the MAPGA tour for a substantial part of his income. "You can get yourself pumped up for them. Most of them are at least 36 holes, which means one guy getting hot for one round doesn't automatically win it, like in pro-ams.
"People aim for the special stuff. There, it's normally pro against pro. They let you see how good you really are."
At the Charles Town Golf Classic, which is associated with the West Virginia track, a golfer could pick up a $2,200 first prize. The middle Atlantic Open winner gets $2,000. The winner at the Shannon Green Pro-Am, a two-day affair,can take home $1,000, the most lucrative pro-am earning.
"Anyone who tells you he doesn't care about the money, which you hear all the time, is just putting you on," said Ringer. "Don't believe it. Maybe some of them are so well off they can say that, but for most of us, the economics of life are such that what we win helps.
"It costs me $50 to $75 to play in a pro-am, once you finish paying your entry fee and whatever it takes to entertain your members and pay for your gas and lunch and so forth. I can't write that off.
"You have to make your money in the special events, because it is hard to make a profit from the pro-ams."
Said another Middle Atlantic pro: "One year I made $5,000 on the tour and I wound up with $300 in profits. The margin is pretty small."
There are about 400 golfers in both full and apprenticeship categories who are eligeble for the MAPGA tour (one of 40 sections that comprise the national PGA membership). But the same 40 to 50 golfers dominate the circuit -- and an increasing number of them are assistant pros.
"It's a reflection of the times," said Dave Leonard, the executive director of the MAPGA. "Golf pros are basically businessmen and that's becoming more true almost every day.
"The tour has a place in the Middle Atlantic PGA, but it is not the most important function of the section. More important is our dealings with the problems facing our pros."
Sales in golf shop merchandise have declined. The pros are being hurt by competition from discount stores. Some clubs are not convinced they need a PGA pro. Others are pinching pennies with their golf staff. For the average pro who works 60 to 70 hours a week and is hoping to earn $25,000 a year, it hasn't been an easy time.
So many head pros are opting more and more to let their assistants, who survive on lower incomes, play on the tour while they pick up an event here or there. Last season, for example, four of the top five money winners on the circuit were assistants.
"There are other reasons why head pros stay home," said one MAPGA member. "They have lost their competitive edge. They can't practice as much and they just aren't that good anymore. If you are a good player or an acceptable player, your membership accepts and respects you.
"But if you lose it, you get the snickers and the grins. Some guys can't break 80 anymore, so they stay home and don't play. That way, no one knows if they are any good or not. Or if they play, they don't turn in a card. That's an easy way out."
For assistants like Gibson, the MAPGA tour is vitally important. His club at Germantown receives light play and, to hype future business, he set up a free clinic a few weeks ago. No one showed up.
"I'm trying to make some money," he said. "With the way lessons are going, I need to do well on this tour. The money on the tour is everything. I won $5,098 last year and I wasn't eligible for all the events. This year I am and I'm going to play in everything I can.
"Maybe this is as far as I will go in golf, I don't know. I didn't really get interested in the sport until college, so I've had a late start. I even had trouble getting a job in this area for almost two years.
"My aim right now is to be the best lkocally. Then I'll see how far I can go. But someone told me that I must be good here before I can think about being good anywhere else."
Gibson is a scrambler and scratcher. He won a place in the Kemper Open by taking advantage of a local rule that allowed him to move his ball from the fairway onto the green.He then sank the ensuing putt. Rival golfers were infuriated, but Gibson was upheld by the sectional rule referee.
"Oh, they'll be mad at me," he said, "but I wasn't wrong. Everyone forgets that I had to make a heck of a putt, downhill and curling. A rule didn't do that for me."
He also made the cut at the Kemper, won $704 and automatic entry into the PGA tour's next stop, the Atlanta Classic.
Gibson won or tied for first in five tournaments last year, matching Wheeler Stewart, assistant at Congressional, for the most victories during 1979. Both are among the tour's best, along with Alwin, who has been player of the year for two of the last four seasons; Ringer, who was player of the year in 1972 and 1978; Brian Staveley, assistant at Eisenhower Golf Club who leads the 1980 circuit in money winnings, and Tommy Smack, another two-time player of the year.
"In the best tournaments," Seeley said, "you know who will be the top guy before you tee off. Let's face it. No one ever said all golf pros are equal in ability. But that sometimes surprises the members."
Seeley, who is involed in building a new Prince George's course, has spent 10 years playing and observing the MAPGA tour. He still is good enough to win an occasional pro-am event -- "the members talk about it for days, even though the result is buried in the sports section" -- but he also has a mature outlook regarding his ability and those of the young turks.
"I tried the South African tour and I tried to qualify for the PGA tour when I was in the Navy," he said. "The nomadic life isn't for me. It's tough out there, especially mentally. You have to be a killer.
"I don't have a need anymore to try the tour. But there are some frustrated tour people here. They hanker for a chance.If it's in their blood, they should probably work to get it out. For me, this circuit satisfies my competitive needs and it gives me a chance to give my members a treat. Serving my members is my No. 1 priority."
Rifman once felt the urge to play with the big boys on the national tour. He had limited success at best, and now he is content with his game and his niche in life.
"I use the Middle Atlantic to experiment," he said. "How can I teach something to a student if I haven't found out it can work? So when I play in these tournaments, I test out my philosophies. I'm a better golf pro now because of what I learned from the tour."
To anyone who has viewed the Masters, or, for that matter, the Glen Campbell Open, on television, a Middle Atlantic pro-am event would be a shock.
There are hardly any galleries. There aren't any marshals. The pros act as rule arbiters within the foursome. Courses aren't manicured especially for the tournament, nor are greens necessarily in tournament conditions.
"On the (PGA) tour, you don't find spike marks," Ringer said. "Things are in incredible shape. But by and large, considering the main purpose of these courses, they are in fine shape for us."
Balls are lost. All types of rule problems can come up. And occasionally, the pros cheat.
"We've had our cheating problems," Seeley said, "but I think things have improved greatly in that area. Integrity has taken over.
"We police ourselves. The guys who get caught are asked to straighten themselves out and they usually do."
"If you shoot a 71 and he comes in with a 68, you always wonder if he didn't help himself," Gibson said. "You don't want to lose that way."
Some pros, like Ringer and Gibson, would like to see improvements on the tour. Gibson decries the lack of publicity surrounding most of the circuit's events. Ringer believes more participants should receive shares of the total purse. But for that to happen, the purse has to be increased substantially, an unlikely possibility.
"We really don't have anything to sell right now to a corporation," Ringer said. "If we could say, 'sponsor our tournaments and we'll stage events where you can supply 50 participants, we could. But that would mean the end to the pro-am setup as we know it and that cant't happen.
"I'd at least like to see more pros included in the fields. Go to a setup where half the field is pro and half amateur."
Toss in problems with slow play and the fact that some of the area's premier courses want nothing to do with the circuit and the MAPGA is not without its headaches. Still, Gibson claims, there is some remarkable golf played every week on the tour.
"If you see one guy dominate it, it's really an amazing feat, the way the greens vary and the conditions vary from week to week," he said. "You get only one shot at a course that you may play once a year. In some ways that's harder to deal with than what they face on the PGA tour."
Gibson, who dreams of making that PGA tour odyssey, should listen to Ringer, who wears the scars of his two years among the heavy hitters.
"If I was going on the PGA tour now," he said, "I would quit my job, and work on my game for six months. I would run every day, I would lose weight, I'd play at least 18 holes daily, hit 300 or more practice balls and put myself in the hands of a competent teacher. "I'd have to get myself mentally ready for the grind."
And what does he do for the Middle Atlantic PGA tour?
"Well," he said, "for the big events, I might go over the courses in my head and get myself psyched up. Even though I can't play that many competitive rounds during the season because of my job, I think I can be the best in any event I play."
And he can say that without even considering a diet.