Claytor Endures ‘The Grind’ in Seeking PGA Dream by thad mumau

Daniel Claytor shares a dream with hundreds of other young men. Like many of them, he has the capacity for making that dream come true, enormous potential rooted in the ability to hit a golf ball. To hit very good golf shots frequently.

Earning a PGA card is an elusive quest. Daunting at times. So close and yet so far, as the old saying goes. Because it’s not simply a matter of playing well. WHEN you play well is the ticket.

Claytor, 27, is a native of Rocky Mount, NC, where he graduated from Northern Nash High School. At Barton College, he was a three-time All-America, the first athlete to accomplish that in school history. He won six NCAA golf tournaments.

He was the points leader in the Swing Thought Qualifying School Scholarship Race last year, placing third in Player of the Year points and second in money earned in National Series tour events. He was named the 2017 Daniel Converse Award winner. The honor is based on performance, integrity and exceptional professionalism on and off the golf course.

Golf has been a big part of Daniel’s life since he was six months old. He had a set of plastic clubs before he could even walk. Participating in several sports growing up, he played soccer and golf in high school. “My swing was pretty good from the start, and I had more ability in golf than any other sport,” he recalls.

“My dad and I used to get to the course as the sun came up. Everyone would say how much I reminded them of him, and I remember thinking that was the coolest thing ever. He was a really good golfer, and I wanted to be just like him.

Barton College, which is in Wilson (a half hour from Claytor’s home) was the only school to offer a scholarship. “I owe Coach John Hackney everything,” Daniel says, “for taking a chance on me.

“I will never forget winning my very first collegiate tournament. Coach Hackney used the tourney as qualifying for my nine teammates and me. It was how he chose the A Team for the next tournament.

“I was eighth in team qualifying standings before that tournament. I shot 69 both rounds to win and earned the fifth and final A Team spot. I went on to play every tournament Barton College entered for four years. Who knows how my career would have turned out if I hadn’t won that week?”

After college, Daniel worked as a volunteer assistant coach and graduate assistant before serving as a full-time assistant with the Barton College golf team the past three and a half years. The last four summers have been spent on the mini-tour, which entails taking care of his own scheduling and transportation, all the while knowing there are bills to be paid.

And that is only part of The Grind.

“It’s as good a term as any,” says Daniel, laughing at the wording but not at the ordeal he experiences week after week during long, hot summers. “It sure can become a grind, what we go through week after week.”

Playing on the mini tour requires considerable money and miles. They’re covered in an automobile, not an airplane. And the dollars . . . they practically evaporate, what with all the entry fees and living expenses.

$550 to enter a Swing Thought 36-hole tournament, $750 for a 54-hole event and $950 for a 72-hole tourney. He drives himself to tournaments, and gasoline is costly, with trips to Kentucky, West Virginia and Florida.          He drove 14½ hours in one day to play in West Palm Beach, Florida. The trip to Louisville took almost 10 hours. His 2008 Honda Accord has nearly 250,000 miles on it.

Claytor’s parents supplement what he earns coaching and on the mini-tour in order to pay the bills as he tries climbing the mountain to the PGA. In-kind sponsors provide material goods such as clothing, sunglasses and clubs. In turn, Daniel wears their logos, uses their products and acknowledges them on social media.

Titleist and Footjoy head the list, giving Daniel balls, gloves, hats and shoes. Donald Ross Sportswear keeps him in shirts and outerwear. Go To Caddie Yardage Books supplies do-it-yourself yardage books and yardage books covers. The CEO, Michael Carter, has given Daniel a Tour Staff Bag with the Go To Caddie logo on it, which is used at tournaments. Daniel is featured on the back of their yardage book box.

He is a brand ambassador for Popticals sunglasses. SCNS Sports Foods supplies him with golf nutrition and energy bars. Mid-South Sports Inc. is a partial sponsor. He also serves as an ambassador of sorts for certain companies, promoting their products to fellow players, and they reward him in merchandise. It saves considerable money over the course of a year, but also becomes part of The Grind.

Where a PGA pro is paid for endorsements, Daniel and his playing peers are not. These sponsors just help offset some expenses. So the challenge of finding money to pay the bills continues. As does finding a way to scrape by.

“I’m not staying at the Ritz by any means,” Daniel says. “Basically, I just look for some place with a bed, a shower and a lock on the door. When I can, like when we played in Charlotte, I stay with friends.”

He lives at home in Nashville, NC. Weeks that there is no tournament, he makes the half-hour drive to Wilson Country Club, getting there before 9 a.m. Beginning on the putting green, he works for about an hour on drills designed to keep his fundamentals in check. Next, he goes to the range where he works on swing mechanics with Reid Hill, his coach and a PGA professional.

Daniel plays a minimum of four days a week, every day if he is getting ready for a tournament. When he enters an event, he leaves a day before it starts and plays a practice round. If the journey is more than seven hours away, he leaves two days early.

He tries to play practice rounds early so he has the majority of the afternoon to practice. On Tournament Day, if his tee time is 8 a.m., he gets up at 5:30, eats breakfast and arrives at the course no less than an hour before time to tee off.

He stretches, uses a foam roller to get loose, putts for a half hour, hits balls on the range for 10 minutes and putts again before teeing off.

Success feeds hope. Daniel could practically see his name on that gigantic PGA Sunday leaderboard back when he shot a course-record 60 at the 2015 Mimosa Hills Open. And again when he was winning four tournaments on the Swing Thought mini-tour last year. Three more victories this season, one that included another course record (62), have further fueled his optimism.

After those kinds of results, the drive back from a tournament can feel practically like floating on air. If he leaves without a check, having paid out money and not brought any in, his thoughts are a bit heavier. Especially since his family is involved.

“I try not to think about how much money I’m costing my parents,” Daniel says. “I did some of that when I first started playing out here, and it kind of got to me. I talked with my dad, and he insisted that he and my mom are not thinking that way; they’re behind me. They want me to just play my best and not worry. So that’s my attitude.

“It bothers me, sure,” he says, “but one of the biggest things I’ve learned is you can’t beat yourself up; you’ve got to turn around and get ready for the next tournament. No matter what happens, I have to prepare – for the next hole, round or tournament.”

Looking ahead and not back is the obvious approach. “Whether it’s a bad hole or a bad tournament, dwelling on the negative only leads to more bad results. I try to stay even-keel, not getting too excited over an eagle or too discouraged over a bogey.

“Hitting good shots and making putts are important, but lots and lots of guys these days can do that. It comes down to endurance. Being able to withstand disappointment, letting it roll off your back and move on.”

Last year, Claytor’s stroke average was 70.3. Through July of this season, he owned more than a 5,000-point lead over the Swing Thought field.

Now, it may be a matter of getting the big break, and most fans do not realize the struggle involved.

Everything leads to Q School, which is not merely one tournament. It’s a series of events that a PGA candidate needs to win or post a high finish each week. Whereas Daniel may play in a field of 20 to 84 each week, Q School involves eight or 10 locations nationwide, with 96 players at each place.

It’s survival of the fittest at its toughest. One bad or mediocre round can spell doom, postponing that golden opportunity for another year. An errant shot may even sentence Daniel to another year in the minor leagues. The Q School happens once a year, and he has to have his A Game going at the right time.

Timing is everything.

“I feel good about how I’m playing,” he says. “I know it’s tough making it onto the PGA Tour. Only a small number do it. I think I have a great chance, though, if I stay healthy and continue to learn about myself and my game.

“I look forward to making my dreams come true.”

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