One Man's Story

By Mercer BaggsJuly 7, 2009, 4:00 pm
Golf in America
Chip Mendela has a story he wants you to hear.
It starts with him lying on his doctor’s table and … well, it’s his story.
“He [the doctor] comes in and tells me that I have a bad blockage in my LED [main heart artery],” says Mendela, “and I thought, ‘No way.’ I didn’t believe him at first.”
Mendela had reason to doubt: he was a seemingly, physically fit police officer who was only 36 years old. He only went to see his physician because he was experiencing severe chest pains in the aftermath of being involved in a horrific hostage situation.
Chip Mendela
Chip Mendela
His doctor, however, made him a believer.
“He said, ‘You are going to have a heart attack and you are going to die,’” Mendela recalls. “That woke me up.”
It was at that precise moment, after those exact words that Mendela experienced an epiphany.
“I was lying there on that table,” he says, “and I just decided right there: ‘Once I get over this I know what I’m going to do.’”
What Mendela decided upon was what millions of people dream about every day: playing golf professionally.
Mendela, a self-described scratch golfer, was three months removed from winning the Connecticut Public Links Championship when he had his surgery in January, 2002. It had long been in the back of his mind: “How good can I get?”
“When I was a cop,” the Bristol, Conn., native and resident says, “I’d sit there on Sundays and watch the guys on the Nationwide Tour and I’d say to myself, ‘I used to play with that guy. That could be me out there.’”
Mendela didn’t have to quit his day job in order to pursue his dream; the surgery ended his 14-year police career. In the wake of the procedure, he developed complications including a stroke and 30 percent loss of vision in his right eye.
His reaction to it all: 'Oh well, I'll take it. At least I'm still breathing.'
Mendela does optimism like Janice Dickinson does scary. That's why it doesn't matter to him if some view his dream as delusion. He believes it to be possible. And, 'giving up is not an option.'
Mendela eventually recovered from his post-op set-back and took a job as an assistant pro at Chippanee Golf Club. A year thereafter, in 2004, he finally reached his goal of becoming a touring professional.
Now 38, Mendela raised $20,000 from donors which included family, friends and Chippanee members. The idea was to earn back that same sum, return it to the investors and then give them a 50-50 split of all extra income made.
Mendela played 22 events during a 30-week span in '04, including nine tournaments on the now defunct Cleveland Golf Tour. As it turned out, he would have been better off investing that money in Enron stock.
“At my first event I said to myself: ‘I am in way over my head. What am I doing here?’ It was a shock as to how good these guys were. It was amazing. Every week someone would shoot 63 and I’m saying to myself: ‘I wish I could just shoot 72,’” he tells.
“By the end of the year I was a basket-case. I was embarrassed. I felt like I was just wasting people’s money being out there.”
The following year, he ponied up $15,000 of his own money and played professional tournaments in the New England area. He started to score better, carding some rounds in the 60s, but he and his wife had a second child and, as Mendela says, “It's tough to make birdies playing with scared money. Eventually the money started to run out and family came first.”
Chip’s wife, Kim, is a dental hygienist. She works close to 30 hours a week and is the primary source of income for the family. Chip currently works in the pro shop at Tumble Brook Country Club in Bloomfield, but clocks in only 15-20 hours a week and takes home no more than $150.
“I’d love to work more hours, but it’s the times,” he says. “It’s just not there.”
The family, which includes sons Evan, 8, and Chase, 3, makes due thanks to Chip’s retirement pension and medical benefits. Kim’s father, Norman Martin, spends his summers in nearby Plainville, and helps take care of the kids.
Kim offers more than just financial support; she backs her husband and his desire to play golf professionally. But at the same time she reminds him, “You’ve been doing this a long time; you’re not getting any younger.”
“She’s conservative,” Chip says. “She’s not a risk taker. I am. Certainly now.”
Kim offers no argument.
'I don't do well with change; I'm very regimented,' she says. 'I'm definitely the stress of the family. I worry about money, because financially it's very difficult and very frustrating.'
Chip has thought about getting a different job in order to earn more income, but the way things are now he gets to practice, play regularly and stay close to the game – and get closer to his dream.
Asked if he’s ever thought about giving up, he responds quickly: “Never. It’s not even a question. It’s just a little slow right now. Just a lack of sponsors.”
Kim sometimes wishes her husband would turn his drive in another direction, but in their current situation the family can pay its bills and afford to send their kids to a private school. As long as those things don't change, she has every intention of standing by his side, just as she's always done.
'I honestly don't see him ever giving up,' she says. 'I've never met anybody as passionate about something as he is about golf. ... I knew I'd be a golf widow, but never to this extreme.
'If only this came at a different time in life, earlier when we didn't have kids. But life ... you can't control what life is going to throw at you. He's taught me that this is the only life we have and we have to live it to the fullest.'
'But,' she adds, 'family comes first, and he feels the same way.'
Chip, now 44, has his sights set on the Champions Tour. He knows the difficulty of that challenge, as getting exempt on the senior circuit is harder than Leona Helmsley’s heart.
He also knows that he has to get better, which he believes he can only do by getting more experience, playing in more events. Doing that, of course, requires money. Mendela estimates that, with tournament entry fees running up to $1,100, it would cost him over $1,500 per event.
That’s money that he and his family simply don’t have. So like countless other professional hopefuls he seeks sponsorship, something he hasn't done in recent years due to injuries and feeling his game wasn't 100 percent.
“I’ve talked with sports agents,” he says. “In an act of desperation I’ve written letters to Kenny Perry and Phil Mickelson, just asking for their advice on how to get a few sponsorship doors opened so I can make my sales pitch.”
Mendela, in his own words, is “small pickins.” He's just another wannabe, like all those countless others trying to make a living playing golf.
But he’s not like those others, not in his eyes. And he wants you to see that as well.
“I’m not supposed to be here. I should be dead,” he says. “I got a second chance and I want to pursue the dream. I know there are a million mini-tour guys out there, trying to do what I’m trying to do.
“But I got a story.”
'Golf in America' airs on Golf Channel Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m. ET.
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