Cash-strapped Hopkins Tour facing uncertainty

By Jason SobelNovember 8, 2014, 3:45 am

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.” 

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Four players vying for DJ's No. 1 ranking at Open

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 8:41 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Four players have an opportunity to overtake Dustin Johnson for world No. 1 this week.

According to Golf Channel world-rankings guru Alan Robinson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm all can grab the top spot in the world ranking.

Thomas’ path is the easiest. He will return to No. 1 with either a win and Johnson finished worse than solo third, or even a solo runner-up finish as long as Johnson finishes worse than 49th.

Twenty years after his auspicious performance in The Open, Rose can get to No. 1 for the first time with a victory and Johnson finishing worse than a two-way tie for third.

Kopeka can rise to No. 1 if he wins consecutive majors, assuming that his good friend posts worse than a three-way tie for third.

And Rahm can claim the top spot with a win this week, a Johnson missed cut and a Thomas finish worse than solo second.   

Johnson’s 15-month reign as world No. 1 ended after The Players. He wasn’t behind Thomas for long, however: After a tie for eighth at the Memorial, Johnson blew away the field in Memphis and then finished third at the U.S. Open to solidify his position at the top.

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Punch shot: Predictions for the 147th Open

By Golf Channel DigitalJuly 18, 2018, 4:00 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – In advance of the 147th Open Championship, GolfChannel.com writers sound off on burning questions as players ready for a fast and firm test at Carnoustie. Here’s what our writers think about myriad topics:

The Monday morning headline will be …

REX HOGGARD: “Survival.” This one is easy. It always is at Carnoustie, which is widely considered The Open’s most demanding major championship test. Monday’s headline will be that the champion - pick a champion, any one will do - “survived” another dramatic Open. You don’t dominate Carnoustie; you endure.

RYAN LAVNER: “DJ Bashes Way to Victory at Carnoustie.” If somehow a two-win season could be disappointing, it has been for DJ. He’s first in scoring average, birdie average, par-4 scoring, par-5 scoring, strokes gained: tee to green and proximity from the rough. Those last two stats are the most important, especially here at Carnoustie, with these dry conditions. The game’s preeminent long-and-straight driver, there’s a better-than-decent chance he rolls.

MERCER BAGGS: “Rahm Tough: Spaniard charges to Open victory.” Jon Rahm will claim him maiden major title this week by powering his way through the winds and fescue at Carnoustie.

JAY COFFIN: “Thomas wins second major, ascends to world No. 1 again.” Shortly after The Open last year, Thomas rolled through the end of the PGA Tour season. This is the time of year he likes best. Despite a poor Open record the last two years, he’s not remotely concerned. He’s a tad miffed he didn’t win in France two weeks ago and comes to Carnoustie refreshed, with a gameplan, and ready to pounce.



Who or what will be the biggest surprise?

HOGGARD: Style of play. Given Carnoustie’s reputation as a brute, the surprise will be how the champion arrives at his lofty perch. Unlike previous editions at Carnoustie, this week’s dry conditions will promote more aggressive play off the tee and the winner will defy the norm and power his way to victory.

LAVNER: Tiger Woods. This is Woods’ best chance to win a major this year, and here’s believing he contends. His greatest strengths are his iron game and scrambling, and both aspects will be tested to the extreme at Carnoustie, helping separate him from some of the pretenders. With even a little cooperation from his putter, he should be in the mix.

BAGGS: Padraig Harrington. He had a good opening round last week at the Scottish Open and has some good vibes being the 2007 Open champion at Carnoustie. He won’t contend for four rounds, but a few days in the mix would be a nice surprise.

COFFIN: Alex Noren. Perhaps someone ranked 11th in the world shouldn’t be a surprise, but with so much focus on some of the bigger, household names, don’t be surprised when Noren is in contention on Sunday. He hasn’t finished worse than 25th since early May and won two weeks ago in France. He also tied for sixth place last year at Royal Birkdale.



Who or what will be the biggest disappointment?

HOGGARD: Jordan Spieth. Although he was brilliant on his way to victory last year at Royal Birkdale, Spieth is not the same player for this week’s championship, the byproduct of a balky putter that has eroded his confidence. Spieth said giving back the claret jug this week was hard, but his finish will be even tougher.

LAVNER: Weather. This might sound a little sadistic, but one of the unique joys of covering this tournament is to watch the best in the world battle conditions they face only once a year – the bone-chilling cold, the sideways rain, the howling wind. It doesn’t appear as though that’ll happen this year. With only a few hours of light rain expected, and no crazy winds in the forecast, the biggest challenge for these stars will be judging the bounces on the hard, baked-out turf.

BAGGS: Jordan Spieth. The defending champion is still trying to find his winning form and Carnoustie doesn’t seem the place to do that. As much as he says he loves playing in strong winds, there should be enough danger around here to frustrate Spieth into a missed cut.

COFFIN: Rory McIlroy. I hope I’m wrong on this, because the game is better when Rory is in contention at majors. Putting always has been his issue and seemingly always will be. While there isn’t as much of a premium placed on putting this week because of slower greens, he may still have to hit it close. Super close.



What will be the winning score?

HOGGARD: 10 under. The last two Opens played at Carnoustie were won with 7-under and 6-over totals, but this week’s conditions will favor more aggressive play and lower scores. Expect to see plenty of birdies, but the great equalizer will come on Sunday when wind gusts are forecast to reach 25 mph.

LAVNER: 15 under. An Open at Carnoustie has never produced a winner lower than 9 under (Tom Watson in 1975), but never have the conditions been this susceptible to low scores. Sure, the fairway bunkers are still a one-shot penalty, but today’s big hitters can fly them. The thin, wispy rough isn’t much of a deterrent. And the wind isn’t expected to really whip until the final day.

BAGGS: 12 under. We aren’t going to see the same kind of weather we have previously witnessed at Carnoustie, and that’s a shame. Any players who catch relatively benign conditions should be able to go low, as long as they can properly navigate the fairway rollout.

COFFIN: 14 under. Walked into a local golf shop in the town of Carnoustie wearing a Golf Channel logo and the man behind the counter said, “It’ll take 14 under to win this week.” Well, he’s been here for years and seen Carnoustie host The Open twice before. He knows more about it than I do, so I’ll stick with his number.

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Watch: Na plays backwards flop and practices lefty

By Grill Room TeamJuly 18, 2018, 3:16 pm

Fresh off his victory at The Greenbrier, Kevin Na is taking a quite-literally-backwards approach to his Open prep.

Caddie Kenny Harms has been sharing videos of Na's early work at Carnoustie.

This one shows Na standing in a bunker and playing a flop shot over his own head (as opposed to someone else's):

While it's unlikely he'll have a need for that exact shot this week, it's far more likely a player may have to think about turning his club over and playing from the wrong side of the ball, like so:

Na has made 4 of 6 cuts at The Open and will look to improve on his best career finish, currently a T-22 in 2016 at Royal Troon.

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McIlroy growing 'comfortable' on Open courses

By Ryan LavnerJuly 18, 2018, 1:45 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – For a player who once complained about the vagaries of links golf, Rory McIlroy enters this Open with a dazzling record in the sport’s oldest championship.

Though he missed the 2015 event because of an ankle injury, McIlroy has now posted three consecutive top-5 finishes in the year’s third major.

“It’s surprising a little bit that my best form in major championships has been this tournament,” he said Wednesday, “but at the same time I’ve grown up these courses, and I’m comfortable on them. I think going to courses on The Open rota that I’ve played quite a lot. I think that helps. You have a comfort level with the golf course, and you’ve built up enough experience to know where to hit and where not to hit it.”


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


McIlroy still regrets what happened in 2015, when he “did something slightly silly” and injured his ankle while playing soccer a few weeks before the event. That came a year after he triumphed at Royal Liverpool.

“Since 2010, I couldn’t wait to play The Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I thought that was one of my best chances to win a major.”

He tied for 42nd at Carnoustie in 2007, earning low-amateur honors.