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The Reality of Turning Pro: Kennedy Swann, going out on top and working her way up

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Kennedy Swann is 23. And three days. She’s 23-years-and-3-days-old, if you’re going by this publish date.

There have been times when she felt – behaved – younger than her age. Now, she feels – behaves – a little older than her age.

But 23 is the number and golf is all about numbers.

Especially those that come after dollar signs.

Kennedy estimates that she has secured about 26,000 of those post-$ numbers as she enters her first full year as a professional golfer. She also estimates that will last her about half, maybe two-thirds of the season.

“That 26-grand is going to go quickly,” she says, adding, “If I go out on Symetra and make money. I'm gonna be doing good.”

Kennedy has Category I status on the Symetra Tour, the LPGA’s developmental/pipeline circuit, in 2022. That’s an 'i' not a '1,' so she’s a little further down the priority list. How she got that status, we’ll come back to.

First a Kennedy snapshot: Born in Austin, Texas (23 years ago), attended Clemson, transferred to Ole Miss, won a national title, turned pro.

Of course, there is a lot of information that can go in between those commas. She played two years as a Tiger, but a coaching change didn’t mesh with her personality. She eyed Ole Miss, but they weren’t sure if they wanted her.

No thank you, said Rebels head coach Kory Henkes. At first, before relenting. “After I thought about it,” she now says, “I kind of like second-chance kids.”

Kennedy, by her own admission, had some maturing to do. “I was a 21-year-old when I transferred that acted like a 16-year-old,” she says.

She needed accountability.

Coach Henkes was happy to oblige: “Oh, I can do that.”

“I don't even think it took two days before she started yelling at me,” recalls Kennedy. “The coaches were riding my ass.”

Tough love doesn’t work on everyone, but it made Kennedy do just that: work. She worked primarily on course management – that was the area her coaches targeted.

Hit it hard, hit it far, find it, hit it hard again. That was how Kennedy played. Past tense. She rewired her competitive mindset, also improved her putting, and bettered her results.

As a senior in 2019-20, she lowered her scoring average by nearly four shots (71.39) and finished in the top 20 in her first six starts. And that’s all she got. Golf was finished, canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Time to “enter the workforce,” she figured. Head out west and find something in the golf industry. But the NCAA stepped in, granting athletes an extra year of eligibility, if they wanted it. This time, the Ole Miss coaches had to convince Kennedy to play. This time, Kennedy relented.

One national title later and Kennedy has a beautifully gaudy ring to impress future house guests. She left Oxford with something else, too: accountability.

“I would say now I’m [a] 23-year-old that acts more like a 25-, 26-year-old, and it’s just part of that maturing process in both golf and personality,” she says.

“I wouldn’t be who I am without my coaches.”

That extra year was a life-changer. The workforce was put on hold. She’s now a professional golfer.

“A lot of people are kind of confused,” she says, “because I feel like there's a lot of athletes that claim themselves as professionals. You see the girls that dress up and are like the golf models, right? And they're professional golfers, but they can't break 90, you know?”

There are also members of the PGA of America, Kennedy points out. They, too, are golf professionals, and Kennedy may one day join ranks as she’s working toward her Class A certification. It’s an investment – $4,000 up front, she says – in her future. A backup plan or second career.

One day, down the uncertain road, she might be a teaching professional somewhere. Competing in local events, taking money from local guys. Probably somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. That’s where she is now, renting a one-bedroom, one-bathroom loft that sits above a vacant downstairs. She lives with her boyfriend of five years, Logan Bodiford, a fisheries biologist for the Forest Service, whom she met freshman year at Clemson. Oatis, an 8-week-old Bernese Mountain Puppy, will soon make it a party of three in McKenzie Bridge, Oregon, 53 miles east of Eugene.

“Teeny, tiny little town that’s population, like, 100,” Kennedy says.

It's a strange place for a professional golfer, the kind who plays competitively for money, to live. But Kennedy likes the environment. “I’m a huge outdoors person. I love kayaking, rafting, hiking, fishing,” she says.

“I'm still gonna live the life that I want to live while playing professionally.”

She’s not a Florida girl, just not her spirit. But she does have family and friends down that way, as well as in pockets across the U.S., including her mom and dad back home in Austin. She’s got base options.

Kennedy can be Kennedy in her version of “Northern Exposure.” No confinement to a location. No people controlling her daily routine. At 23 going on whatever, she’s a bonafide adult. A pro. Play golf and make money.

“Ugh!”

Why is Kennedy so exasperated?

Receipts.

Those … darn receipts. Those necessary evils. So easy to crumple up and throw away. But Kennedy needs receipts, all the receipts.

Those receipts mean money. Not just a record of her expenses, but what she can save. Write-offs.

Helping with her finances – and with her sanity – is Kim Noonan, a CPA who owns Meck Noonan and Co., in Austin. She played golf at LSU, from 2005-08, under her maiden name Meck, so she understands more than just write-offs and taxes. She surveyed the professional landscape upon graduation, considered the expenses of being a female playing professionally versus what she might earn, and quickly decided on public accounting.

"What you see on TV, it looks really fancy and dandy, but that’s just for the top players in the world," says Noonan, whose company has around 10 professional golfers, women and men, as clients. "Everyone else is grinding it."

Yes, Kennedy is a young woman trying to earn a living against even more young women. And in doing so, there is a cost, a hefty cost, as the returns and the opportunities are not ample. Kennedy turned pro on Aug. 12, waiting until after the U.S. Women’s Amateur, for which she was exempt, and July’s Marathon LPGA Classic, for which she was gifted an invite.

Heck, Swann (via gift) earn LPGA exemptions

Rachel Heck of Stanford and Kennedy Swann of Ole Miss were awarded invitations to this year’s Marathon Classic on the LPGA Tour.

She didn’t enter this carnivorous world naïve. She started a GoFundMe. She started an LLC. She’s got an MBA.

What she didn’t have on Aug. 12, however, was status. And with no status, the best way to earn an LPGA card was to go through Q-School.

The path isn't cheap. It was $2,500 to register for Stage I (plus expenses). Kennedy easily advanced through that, closing the 72-hole event in 67 to tie for 16th. Her reward: a $3,000 entry fee into Stage II (plus expenses).

Kennedy wasn’t as fortunate there, but, again (our pardons), we’ll come back to that.

Sticking, for now, with those nagging little dollar-sign numbers, Kennedy’s expenses from July 16 to Oct. 28 were $14,497.80, according to her line-item Excel spreadsheet. That’s entry fees, yardage books, green books, flight travel, airline bag checks, hotels, Airbnb’s, food, car rentals, gas for Tiggy – her 2019 Volkswagen Tiguon, which was her “first adult purchase.” That doesn’t include additional costs to her swing coach, Scott Hamilton, her putting coach, Tim Yelverton, or her sometimes caddie, Trey Harbick.

“I’ve spent 15- to 20-grand so far, on just going through Q-School,” she says.

So, how does she afford this endeavor? Her father, Jay, is nearing retirement as a lieutenant in the Austin Police Department. Her mom, Laura, is a counselor and adjunct faculty at the University of Texas. They aren’t flipping the bill.

How does she offset the expenses? For one, just like she did with her game upon moving to Oxford, she works for it.

Tokatee Golf Club, Everyone Welcome.

That’s what the sign says at the muni down the road from her house in McKenzie Bridge. Kennedy does whatever is needed there: Works the pro shop, covers the coffee shop, teaches clinics, drives the beverage cart (“That’s where I make the best money,” she says).

There is help, too. From familiar sources – Tokatee’s owner assisted with entry fees into both Q-School stages – and from unexpected ones.

“One of my aunt’s best friends has helped me with some of the entry fees,” Kennedy says. “My ex-boyfriend’s dad from high school has helped me with the entry fees. It's been like these random people that I just met somewhere along the road that have been generous enough and I guess have enough faith in me.”

Nike is supplying her with golf shoes and Titleist is offering free balls, gloves and gear. Carhartt, an outdoor clothing company, has given her some apparel to fit her Oregonian lifestyle. Titleist also fit her for clubs: TSi3 driver; TSi2 3- and 7-woods; TSi2 4-hybrid; T200 irons, 5-PW; 50-, 55-, 60-degree Vokey wedges. She kept the putter from her college days, a Scotty Cameron Flowback 5.5.

But none are paying her.

“I am very open to new sponsors,” she says, noting that she will sport the Tokatee logo on her shirts, out of pride.

There is the matter of that $26,000 with which Kennedy says she’ll be able to begin the year. Some of that will come from her GoFundMe account, which currently registers $22,700.

Not all of that $22,700 remains, as Q-School and a Monday qualifying attempt in Portland took a toll. But it’s still a big part of what is going to help her through the first part of Year 1, in which she estimates a break-even number of up to $50,000.

With her Category I status on the Symetra Tour, Kennedy estimates she’ll play “about 80-85% of the full schedule.” By comparison, Lucy Li was last among those in that category on the tour’s priority list in 2021 and played 16 of the 20 events – 80%.

The Symetra Tour, however, usually doesn’t kick off until March (the schedule comes out in early ’22). Until then, Kennedy has a few options; though, it won’t be easy to keep her ledger in the black.

She could try and Monday qualify for LPGA events. The tour will host three tournaments in Florida, beginning in late January.

“That's probably $1,000 in flights, [$200] for an entry fee,” she says. “You gotta have a rental car, a place to stay for one night. It's just like, for a one-day tournament, extremely expensive to play a Monday qualifier.”

The LPGA/Symetra entry-fee structure (as it relates to Kennedy) is such:

  • For LPGA Monday qualifiers, if you are an LPGA or Symetra Tour member, it’s $200. If not, it’s $500.
  • It’s $200 to enter an LPGA event (if you’re eligible), but if you went through Monday qualifying, there is no additional expense.
  • It’s $500 to enter a Symetra Tour event.

There’s also the mini-tours.

The Eggland’s Best Golf Tour plays events throughout the year in Florida. First place can earn you between $1,100 and $2,500, but entry fees are $525 for members and $625 for non-members, per event.

The Cactus Tour contests events in Arizona with first place ranging from $1,800 to $4,000 – and entry fees ranging from $595 for members to $695 for non-members.

The Women’s All-Pro Tour charges $695 entry fees if you have LPGA/Symetra Tour status and are not a WAPT member. They, however, guarantee a minimum of $10K to the winner and have ’22 events slated through the Southwest from March-July.

She could also play some local PGA section events. “They have actually pretty decent purses and the entry fee is, you know, $200, compared to like a Symetra event,” Kennedy says.


Swann navigating the 'lonely' road to a pro career

Swann navigating the 'lonely' road to a pro career

As for Symetra, most purses last season were $175,000 or $200,000. The winner earned between $26,500 and $30,000, with 10th place picking up between four- and five-grand. Most weeks, for most players, it’s a battle to break even. One good week might buy you an extra three.

“When I explain to people that I’ve actually gone through Q-School, when I tell them that I’ve pulled 2022 Symetra status, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re actually a pro-pro. That’s pretty freaking cool,’” Kennedy says.

“But it’s a lot more taxing than you think.”

That’s coming from someone whom Coach Henkes says, as a compliment: “The high-dollar hotels aren’t really for her.”

Kennedy would just assume save the money and sleep in the hotel – or golf course – parking lot. Maybe not in her car, but above it.

“I thought about getting one of those tents on top of the car – like I mentioned, I'm very outdoorsy, love to camp outside – thought about even investing in one of those and then I don't even have to do a hotel. I can just sleep on top of my car and wake up and go,” she says.

Camping runs in the family. Her parents own an RV and traveled throughout the country to watch their daughter play her final collegiate season. Great payoff in the end.

To start Kennedy’s pro career, Mom will probably make the journey a little more until Dad hits retirement.

“My mom is always so great. She's like, ‘What do you want for dinner? I can make dinner tonight. You know I can cook,’” Kennedy says. “Then my dad. You know, after a round, emotional support of whether it goes well or whether it doesn't go well. I had them at Stage II with me and it was nice 'cause I had some family around instead of just going back to a hotel by yourself and feeling kind of lonely.”

And, as promised, back to Q-School.

Stage II, Venice, Florida.

Four feet.

“My hands were literally shaking, and I went through my whole routine of backing off, taking deep breaths, you know, took my time. I didn't get quick or rush,” Kennedy says.

She was on the seventh hole, her 16th of the final round. Facing a 4-footer for par. She did everything she was taught to do.

“But I still missed the putt, and it was because of nerves and I need to find a way – I think it's just experience,” she says. “Being in that situation, where your career for the next year is based solely on that 4-footer.”

Kennedy parred in to shoot 73. She finished one shot outside the number. Those who make it to the final stage, known as Q-Series, are guaranteed full status on the Symetra Tour for the following year. The top 45 and ties earn LPGA cards. There is also a $150,000 purse.

“One stroke,” she laments, “one stroke over the course of four days.”

Having gone through two stages of Q-School and competed in the Marathon LPGA Classic, Kennedy has quickly defined where she needs to improve: “Mental toughness,” she says.

Some advice from her former coach: “She likes looking around, likes looking at scoreboards and crunching numbers in her head – all these things that she can’t control, instead of not worrying about that and just playing Kennedy golf.”

Kennedy golf is “great ball-striking,” Henkes says. “She hits a lot of greens. She hits it long.”

Kennedy hits her driver, on average, 265 yards. She hits her 7-iron 155. She’s 5-foot-1. “For being small and petite,” Henkes says, “she gets after it.”

Kennedy and Henkes caught up a few weeks ago, when Ole Miss hosted Texas A&M in football and the 2020-21 women’s golf team was given those beautifully gaudy rings and honored during the first quarter at Vaught Hemingway Stadium. It’s a forever reminder of what she accomplished.

But Kennedy isn’t much for living in the past and she isn’t much for people trying to protect her feelings.

It’s that accountability thing.

Kennedy has a two-year plan. Two years of giving this a go and then taking stock.

“That’s something I’ve told my team that has supported me through this – my friends, my sponsors, my family. I’ve told them, you need to be really honest with me. In two years, when I reevaluate where my game is, I don’t want you to just look at me and say, No, you’re close, I think you can make it,” she says.

“I need you to be honest and be able to say, Hey, I don’t think you’re close and honestly doesn’t seem like you have fun. Maybe it’s time to stay in the golf industry, but not play anymore.”

Or, maybe there is no reason to reevaluate. Maybe she top-10s on the Symetra money list and begins a successful LPGA career. Maybe she makes it through Q-Series to do the same. Maybe she finds that she enjoys being a competitive player at any level.

She’s the reigning Oregon Open champion. First female to ever win the title. It paid $10,000 – to a professional. She was still an amateur, so it was $750 in pro-shop credit at Takotee.

“That sucked,” she says flatly.

Not for everyone.

“Over the summer, all the guys would come into the pro shop,” she adds, “and get a couple beers, get a sweatshirt or whatever and, Put it on Kennedy's tab!

That 10-grand would have been nice. Could have bought her an extra month or two on tour. Money is going to be a constant pressure. Make money. Ask for money. Spend money.

Track money.

“Ugh!”

She has Noonan to help with “all that crap.” All those wretched receipts and the establishing of an LLC, which was not only another $1,200 expense, but a pain in the ass.

“It's horrible and it's expensive and it's time consuming and it's confusing and it sucks,” she says. “And I have an MBA! I got my masters from Ole Miss.”

Kennedy is trying to learn QuickBooks now so that she can handle her finances by herself, save herself some money. The pangs of being a newly turned professional. Particularly a newly turned female professional, where sponsor opportunities and purses are further limited. But tracking finances is not black and white, or black and red; it's more than just logging pluses and minuses.

"It can be very confusing and very time consuming," Noonan notes. "You have to ask, what's my time worth?

“I think Kennedy is going to have a very successful golf career. Her time should be spent on her golf game and growing her brand in the game."

The latter of which, she'll have to do on her own. She doesn't have an agent. Part of the cost-saving measures. Even though she'd love to employ Harbick on her bag, she'll probably tote it herself for a while – maybe have Logan do it when he has some time off in March and April.

But growing her brand and marketing herself shouldn't be too hard for Kennedy. "She could talk to a wall," Henkes says of her former player. Should definitely be easier than keeping her books.

"Yeah," Kennedy agrees, "I would much rather have someone else keep them for me. We'll see.

"If I start making some money."