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MIni-tour, major gambles
by Associated Press

"Maverick" was the perfect name for a golf mini-tour. Founder Tim Avramidis probably had the generic definition -- a reference to independence and nonconformity -- in mind. But it also suggested a familiar character from the Old West.

Bret Maverick, played by James Garner on TV and Mel Gibson in the movies, made his living as a gambler.

So do golfers who put up a pile of their own money in hopes of winning a bigger pile of someone else's.

"That's exactly what it is," said mini-tour golfer Adam Armagost of Jupiter, Fla. "I'm betting that I'm going to play better than the other guys."

Most never will achieve their goal of making it to the PGA Tour, where private jets and luxury suites await the best of the best. Some will cut their losses and get a "real job." Others will keep playing because it beats working.

"The love of the game and the love of the competition" are Armagost's reasons for continuing to play mini-tours at age 41.

"Sure, I could probably go into some kind of business and possibly make more money and be unhappy," he said. "There's a lot of people doing that. But I'd rather be doing what I want to do and be happy."

That means playing golf -- lots of it. From early June until late September, the Palm Beach County-based Golden Bear Tour puts on a tournament almost every week.

"We have three or four tournament days, playing two separate courses," said Ryan LaVoie, winner of the GBT's Waterford Challenge last week. "Then there's two practice rounds, so there's five or six days. Then we usually take a day off."

The privilege of playing golf for a living isn't cheap. Golden Bear Tour members pay $17,500 for 14 tournaments (plus a tour championship for those who qualify). The Maverick Tour, before it went out of business last week when Avramidis disappeared amid reports of bounced checks and missing money, was charging similar entry fees, but players could buy into one event at a time.

Help with the bills

Tournament fees are just one expense. There's housing, gas, food, equipment and endless range balls.

The Golden Bear Tour assists players through corporate partnerships. Golden Bear Realty helps those from out of town find furnished condos. Hammock Creek Golf Club (originally known as the Golden Bear Golf Club at Hammock Creek) is the tour's official practice facility, where players can hit free range balls.

The GBT also offers discounted fitness instruction through PGA National fitness director Randy Myers, sports psychology through Dr. Rick Jensen and Dr. Patrick Cohn, orthopedic assistance through Dr. Mark Powers and mind and body training through Golf Life Institute.

Most mini-tour players have sponsors who help pay the bills. LaVoie, a native of Pasco, Wash., describes his backers as "people I've met along the way, people I've stayed with. Good people. They've given me a chance to do what I love."

When Armagost turned pro out of the University of Florida in 1987, he played the Space Coast Tour. (Since then, he says, "I've played every mini-tour in South Florida.") He received financial assistance from "a guy from Tampa. I guess he was friends with (tour founder) J.C. Goosie and he had done this before for some other guys.

"He just paid for my entry fees, and I had to take care of everything else."

Armagost had to repay his sponsor, "and then everything (Armagost earned) over that, he kept 25 percent."

It took Armagost only about three months to pay the sponsor off and continue on his own.

"I remember I won one (tournament) and that got me over the hump," he said.

On the road again

Single and living in Gainesville, Armagost would play in Space Coast events on Mondays and Tuesdays and North Florida PGA tournaments on Thursdays and Fridays.

In the summer, he'd hit the state Open circuit in the Midwest and West.

"It was fun," he said. "Nothing like a little 3 1/2-hour trip along that one road to Garden City. You'd fly into Wichita and then you'd go through Dodge City and Boot Hill to Garden City. There was nothing -- just nothing. Sometimes you'd feel like Lewis and Clark out there."

In 1996 Armagost married someone with a background that allowed her to understand his lifestyle. "My wife was in the golf business when I met her (Janis was a golf merchandise buyer)," Armagost said. "But that was one of the ground rules -- she knew I was going to be gone. I laid that down right from the get-go."

Mike McNerney of Palm Beach Gardens has played mini-tours in South Florida since 1995. He and his wife, Jamie, head personal trainer at The Breakers, want to have children. He knows what that might mean for his career.

"It may have me doing something else, and I'm open to that," McNerney said. "I've always wanted to have kids of my own. I have 20-some nieces and nephews. I come from a big family.

"I'm not an idiot. I'm 38 years old. While I think I've gotten better over the years, I know that I can play out there, but I've got to take care of my family, too."

In the past, McNerney has mined a popular source of side income for some mini-tourists -- "member golf."

"I had a couple of good years where you'd find guys that love to gamble, that had a couple bucks and weren't very good," McNerney said. "And I was always happy to oblige."

McNerney knew the odds were in his favor.

"I've played some high-stakes poker, like Texas Hold 'Em, World Series of Poker and stuff like that," he said, "and I've played against guys who are professionals. I thought I knew how to play poker. Well, I quickly found that if you're playing professionals, they're better than you.

"By the same token, if you come into my arena, which is professional golf, and you want to play for money, you're probably going to lose."

McNerney had a friend in Avramidis, who according to other players had a taste for gambling in Las Vegas and on cruise ships. The golfer helped Avramidis recruit players for his Maverick Tour, but withdrew his support after Avramidis refused to identify sponsors he said he had.

McNerney never played in a Maverick Tour event.

In the gambler/golfer world of mini-tours, it turned out to be his best bet.

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