Going pro ain't easy: B.C.'s Lepp lucky to have early support from IMG

Here’s my National Post column from earlier this week:
James Lepp may be dreaming of the day when he appears in the U.S. Open, but for this week, the country’s newest standout professional golfer will be teeing it up in Langley, B.C., a continent away from the havoc of Winged Foot. Since winning a Canadian Tour event as an amateur in 2003, there have been high hopes for the Abbotsford, B.C., native. The level of interest in Lepp jumped a year later when he became the first Canadian to win the NCAA Division I golf title.

In fact, it has been almost 20 years since a Canadian amateur has turned pro with such a level of expectation. Clearly some in the golf industry are watching Lepp with the expectation that he could become the country’s next great professional golfer. But there are no guarantees.

Brent Franklin, who won three straight Canadian Amateur titles before turning pro in 1988, was the last Canadian to receive such attention. For Franklin, his professional success never matched his amateur wins, and he never made it on the PGA Tour. Instead he bounced around to places such as Japan before ending up as a golf coach.

The introverted Lepp, who is as short on words as he is long on game, apparently hasn’t taken the time to consider any pressure. He’s been too busy getting his priorities in place since finishing his university career a few weeks ago with a tie for eighth at the NCAA championships.

“I haven’t really thought about [any pressure],” he said while preparing for his professional debut in the Greater Vancouver Charity Classic today. “Golf is a fickle game, and I guess everyone has to find their own way.”

Lepp enters the professional ranks at a time when numerous male Canadian amateur standouts are within months of making similar moves. Two-time Canadian Amateur champ Richard Scott of Kingsville, near Windsor, will follow Lepp into the pro ranks in the fall, as will NCAA star Andrew Parr, who hails from London. Similarly, long-hitting James Love from Calgary and basher Graham Delaet are all expected to make the move at some point this year.

While Lepp has been lucky to have the support of sports marketing powerhouse IMG Sports and land sponsors before he’s even played his first tournament, the reality is most newly minted Canadian golf pros will struggle, both on the course and off it for years.

That’s something of which Canadian Tour commissioner Rick Janes is well aware. Janes has witnessed that some players on his tour, such as 24-year-old Matt McQuillan, winner of the tour’s event in Edmonton, are unable to raise the funds to play on a regular basis. In order to deal with the issue, Janes has relaunched a Canadian bursary, initially a $5,000 award for the tour’s top Canadian player. The amount will let the player make his way to the PGA Tour Qualifying School in the fall, though Janes hopes the bursary will be expanded as it gains more financial support in coming years.

That financial hurdle, Janes says, must also be multiplied over the years it takes — if it ever happens — for these players to crack the PGA Tour. Janes estimates it costs players upwards of $1,000 a week just to play on one of golf’s developmental tours, such as the Canadian Tour or the Nationwide Tour, the stepping stone to the PGA Tour.

“We do a great job in this country of creating great amateurs, but what happens once they turn pro? We forget about them,” he says. “I don’t want to see great players like James Lepp and Chris Baryla just fade away because they couldn’t afford to play. We need to give them a chance.”

At 22, fading away is the furthest thing from Lepp’s mind. He has the confidence of youth and a game that has already held up in the pro ranks, and Lepp is hopeful his success at the NCAA championships will translate into exemptions for upcoming PGA Tour events. For Lepp, entrance into the Canadian Open is a certainty, but beyond that the schedule is fuzzy. And while no one is calling him “the next Mike Weir” just yet, there are still expectations placed on the young golfer that exceed those placed on most new pros tackling the Canadian Tour. Rarely do those new to pro golf appear on radio shows or make appearances with sponsors as Lepp has over the last week. Given that, Lepp is aware some are expecting success — and soon.

“There is pressure to do well, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “Some of that comes from a bunch of places. Some of it comes from family. But I’m not the kind of guy to take that to heart.”

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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