Crystal Lake's Joe Affrunti begins fight to keep PGA card

Northwest Herald file photo
Crystal Lake native Joe Affrunti is one of several local athletes who has made it to a professional sport. Affrunti is currently playing on the PGA tour.
Northwest Herald file photo Crystal Lake native Joe Affrunti is one of several local athletes who has made it to a professional sport. Affrunti is currently playing on the PGA tour.

MEMPHIS - Joe Affrunti hesitated to turn on the lights in the morning. 

The Crystal Lake native played golf through the southern mini-tour circuit from 2004 to 2009. There were no private jets, luxury cars or five-star hotels. It was survival mode. Players would essentially gamble with their future. 

They paid to enter a tournament and only made money based on a win or high finish. A $1,000 entry fee was essentially a bet that could pay off with a $15,000 pay day. Expenses included rental cars, flights and one less than desirable Alabama hotel room Affrunti won't forget. 

"The first night I wake up in the morning and there are some bites on my leg, I think no big deal," Affrunti said. "Then I pull the sheets away and there are fleas everywhere. There were places I would wake up in the morning, turn the TV on and the light would send roaches scurrying. We never had roaches up north. I've slept in my car multiple times at rest stops instead of a hotel. Every mini tour player has these stories. If you are still playing after that, you want it. That experience will weed out the weak ones."

It's a career path that taught Affrunti how to score low on the course, manage his finances and believe he's chosen the right career as he makes his first PGA start of 2013 with a 1:39 p.m. Thursday tee time at the FedEx St. Jude Classic at the TPC Southwind in Memphis.

The St. Jude Classic is the first of his 13 major medical exemption starts after shoulder and wrist surgeries sidelined him after earning his PGA Tour Card in 2010 and a far cry from the mini tours where at one point Affrunti racked up $20,000 in credit card debt. 

There were times he'd only make the minimum payment on a credit card with 20 percent interest because he had to charge a trip to the next tournament. 

A winter win on the mini tours would result in a $15,000 pay day. He remembers a big summer win that earned him $33,500. Mini tour leaderboards were Wild West shootouts where a winning score would routinely be minus-17 under par. 

"Every time I got the credit card debt up high enough, I'd win," Affrunti said. "That's when I learned about interest rates and credit cards. That was the worst I got up to."

As for playing conditions on a mini tour event, it was a far cry from the pristine greens and well-manicured fairways at TPC Southwind, a private course in an upscale gated community.  

"You play mini tour courses and they are cow pastures," said Affrunti, who played collegiately at The University of Illinois. "College golf has you on the best courses. For a few years, I thought I was better than mini tour courses. But you are only as good as the tour you are playing on. I had to work my way up the ranks. I had to earn it.

"They just don't hand out tour cards. Every single guy sacrificed to get out here. I started to not care about how terrible a course was, instead I realized I had to beat the guys out there to get to where I wanted to be."

Grizzled by the experience, Affrunti finally arrived at the only career he'd ever chosen in 2010; the PGA Tour. He'd used the mini tours as a tool. They taught him how to score low. A simple minus-5 under par wouldn't be enough to survive another week or make another credit card payment. 

Then his shoulder and wrist injuries happened. 

Knowledge would have to be stored. Affrunti's biggest concern wasn't that he wouldn't be able to utilize how to attack a tricky pin on a tour-firm green or how to book the best hotel closest to the course at the lowest price. 

Instead it would be rehab, recovery and relearning of a golf swing that Affrunti, a former hockey player, describes as a "slap shot on the golf course." 

Fueled by doubters that said he couldn't recapture his form after surgeries to his wrist and shoulder, vital body parts for a player that strives on feeling his golf swing rather than mechanically getting into positions, Affrunti said he is finally healthy. 

"I saw a ton of specialists before I got shoulder and wrist surgery," Affrunti said. "It's not something you take the first opinion on. After the surgery, my swing is better than it was before. I really had to want it coming back. I didn't swing a club for almost a year, it wasn't a piece of cake. I had to find my swing again.

"It motivated me to get back to where I was to prove people wrong. It fueled my fire when I heard it was an injury I couldn't come back from. I actually came back stronger. I reworked my swing. People that make it convince themselves it's going to work. I don't have a backup plan, so this better work. Tell yourself that enough times and it's going to work."

PGA Tour courses are immaculate compared to the mini tours on which Affrunti carved out his game. There is a spacious, air conditioned clubhouse. A traveling gym and physical therapy center for players. There will also be a large crowd and television audience. 

But to Affrunti, it's just another job.    

"People don't see the non-stop grind," Affrunti said. "They only see Thursday to Sunday. Not the flight out Sunday night. The getting clubs tweaked on Monday. In Memphis, it's humid, so your skin puffs up. I get blisters everywhere. My fingers are all taped up.

"My toe is taped up. It's just a grind. I got a little hip tightness so I sit on the roller when I get home for a half hour trying to work that out. Then I do it all over again. It's ground hog day. That's the kicker. It's non-stop. On an off week I don't touch a golf club. It's the last thing I want to do. People wouldn't want to go into the office on their off day."

To stay in the top 125 on the money list and keep his PGA Tour card, Affrunti will need to earn $650,000. It seems like a huge sum of money. But factor in flights, car rental, hotel rooms, meals, caddy fees and other incidental costs and the sum becomes considerably less. 

When Affrunti finished in the top 25 of the Nationwide Tour and secured his PGA card he begrudgingly wrote an income tax check that would have netted him a new Mercedes. 

"If you make half a million in any other job, you are killing it," Affrunti said. "If you do that out here, you are losing your job. That blows you away. When you are out competing, you just think about playing well, making birdies and competing. You want to beat other players and move up that leaderboard. Have a chance to come down 18 with everyone going crazy.

"Making it is winning out here. I haven't made it yet. That's what drives me as a competitor. My whole life I wasn't the prototypical athlete to excel. I wasn't a thoroughbred. That was my motivation to practice harder. Having people doubt me fueled me."

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