Cash-strapped Hopkins Tour facing uncertainty

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Six weeks ago, Smylie Kaufman won his first career professional title, prevailing over a 117-man field that included past PGA Tour members and a bevy of former college all-stars to take the Crystal Lake Classic on the minor-league Hopkins Tour. 

“I just really wanted to win one of those big Happy Gilmore checks with my name on it,” said the 22-year-old recent LSU grad. “At least if I got one of those, I could feel like I won. But I didn’t get one.” 

He didn’t get the oversized novelty check. Nor a regular-sized check for the $15,000 he earned for winning the tournament. Nor even a reimbursement of his $800 entry fee. 

Nobody in that field or any other during the last two months of the Hopkins Tour season has received a single dime, despite more than $175,000 being owed to players for tournament earnings. 

It’s a story as old as mini-tour golf itself, a concept which originated in the Tampa, Fla., area in the late 1960s: Players pay to compete, ownership keeps the money, players get screwed. Sometimes these pros are victims of a scam; other times the tour simply doesn’t have the money, for reasons ranging from overdue bills to bad investments. 

This instance might be a little of both or neither of either. That confusion makes the current situation frustrating for players and the two men who claim they sold their tour under the best intentions. 

Started by Karl Diewock as the Peach State Pro Tour in 2006, it was really more of a local men’s money game, with 12-15 professionals competing  throughout the Atlanta area. By 2010, though, Diewock and co-owner Greg Hendrix had expanded their vision to become one of the premier developmental tours in the country. Competitors in subsequent years would include the likes of Brendon Todd and Jason Allred, each of whom would soon find success at the PGA Tour level. To use a baseball analogy, if the PGA Tour is akin to the Major Leagues, then their tour was one of its Double-A equivalents. 

For a few years, the tour flourished, perhaps not as a profitable enterprise for ownership, but at least as a viable option for up-and-coming young pros and veteran journeymen still clinging to a dream. Last year, Hopkins Golf became involved, lending its name as title sponsor  and giving the owners reason for optimism entering the 2014 campaign. 

“We felt this was our year to seize the day,” explains Hendrix, himself a former mini-tour player. “We put some forecasts and budgets in place and thought we had a very good chance of being profitable - not off the backs of the players, but with a product that had appeal to advertisers and sponsors.” 

In April, though, by the end of the season’s first month, they realized they’d overestimated this appeal. Seeking to change the business model, they decided to meet with Ben Kenny, a successful businessman in the oil industry who also owns and operates numerous high-end golf properties in the Atlanta area, including the upscale Golf Club of Georgia. 

Kenny’s stepson, Kalen Jensen, had competed on the Hopkins Tour and Kenny had offered to help if Diewock and Hendrix ever needed anything. That offer led to a meeting in May, during which a plan was proposed for Kenny to purchase one-third of the tour, with the two original owners maintaining the other two-thirds. 

“This isn’t an investment,” he told them. “This is a lark. This is fun.” 

As their conversations extended into summer, Kenny requested financial records, bank statements and long-term projections for the tour, all of which were made available. These negotiations began to stall, though. Meetings were rescheduled, then rescheduled again. The sellers felt Kenny was becoming more elusive; Diewock and Hendrix were growing more anxious about the financial state of their tour. Meanwhile, they did their best to keep the payments coming. Some of the funds being paid to players were earmarked for later tournaments. Essentially, they were robbing Peter to pay Paul, as the saying goes. 

“It’s a classic story of living beyond your means,” says one agent who represents a few Hopkins Tour regulars. “I’d love to have a Ferrari in my garage, but after a few months, I’d have to default on the payments. They had the best of intentions, but at some point they had to look at it and ask, ‘What are we doing?’” 

On Aug. 15, Kenny offered a counterproposal: According to Diewock and Hopkins, he didn’t like having partners, so he made a bid to buy the tour and handle all business aspects while keeping the former owners aboard to run the tournaments. On Sept. 10, he took over sole ownership of the Hopkins Tour. 

Two days later, all players who were owed money from the tour received a check from a different bank than past payments, along with a letter from Kenny on North Atlanta Golf Properties, LLC stationery: 

The enclosed check is sums due from the Hopkins Tour. This company has purchased the Tour from SBKG Enterprises, LLC. Karl and Greg will continue to operate the Tour from a very stable financial perspective. They thank you for your patience and look forward to a very exciting 2015. 

“We all thought, ‘This guy has plenty of money, this is going to be great,’” recalls Jay McLuen, who had competed in events throughout the year. “This is going to be a legit tour.” 

That enthusiasm didn’t last long. 

Three days after Kenny’s letter was sent to players, Lindsay Gilliland, his administrative and controls manager at The Golf Club of Georgia, contacted Diewock and Hendrix via email. “Mr. Kenny has decided to have you finish the season,” she wrote. “We will develop an operating budget for 2015 based on final results. Upon his return to Atlanta, he will have a plan for your benefit and compensation.” The previous owners considered this a breach of contract, directly contrary to their signed agreement. 

Diewock and Hendrix insist that they compensated players with any money that was available and never took a salary for themselves. They had acted on Kenny’s good faith that he would handle the business end of the operations, including paying the bills, and were now faced with insurmountable financial odds. 

Meanwhile, the season ended on Oct. 3 with the Hopkins Tour Championship – an event which required no entry fee for those players who qualified, but carried a $72,000 total purse. Diewock and Hendrix scheduled a face-to-face meeting with Kenny for the following Monday which was again rescheduled multiple times. 

When they met on Oct. 15, they handed over itemized results from the final events, including documentation of payment owed to each player, plus their addresses and Social Security numbers for accounting purposes. Instead, Kenny balked at this idea. 

“He said he’d need some time, he’d be back with us in the next couple of days,” Hendrix recalls. “We left that meeting still in the dark and really didn’t have a time frame. We told the players, ‘We’re in a transition, we’ve sold the company, please be patient with us.’ We were trying to sort everything out, but we never had any indication this was going to happen.” 

Six days later, Kenny sent a letter that both shocked and confused Diewock and Hendrix.

“Your recent revelations that there are more charges seems fraudulent to me,” it stated. “I consider this transaction null and void. I expect a return of $143,403.00 by Nov. 30, 2014, or I will commence legal action for collection.” 

An attempt by GolfChannel.com to contact Kenny was met with the following response from Gilliland: “Mr. Kenny is currently out of town. He is not willing to discuss the details of the Hopkins Tour right now.” 

Efforts from Diewock and Hendrix, as well as other officials and players, have been answered similarly. 

“Honest to God,” says Hendrix, “he will not take my phone calls, won’t take our attorney’s phone calls, our players’ phone calls. We’ve tried that angle. Everyone gets his personal assistant, who just says he’s not in town and he’ll return your call when he gets back, but with no timetable.” 

All of which has left the once-burgeoning mini-tour facing an uncertain future. Tournament officials, courses and players are all owed money. Some of the latter have corporate sponsors to defray the cost of playing in future events, but many others don’t have the means to continue. 

“It’s a completely different world for guys like us than guys on the PGA Tour,” explains McLuen, who competed in three PGA Tour events last season. “On the PGA Tour, there’s no entry fee. We have to pay between $700-$1,200 depending on the tournament. Factor in travel expenses and it can be $1,000-$1,800 just to play, with no guarantee of making money. If you make a cut, you’re barely breaking even.” 

Hendrix agrees: “A lot of times this can be career-threatening. I don’t think Mr. Kenny realizes that.” 

How this conflict will be resolved – if at all – remains unknown. 

“We’ve tried to be as transparent as we can in this process,” Hendrix acknowledges. “Were there some bad business decisions? I’m willing to concede that, but intent to defraud anyone was never in our plans. I can’t speak for Mr. Kenny, though.”