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The Futures Is Now Be it ever so humble, the LPGA's new minor league gives a burgeoning number of pros a tour to call home

If you want the story on the SBC Futures tour, check out the
parking lot, not the leader board. No spit-shined courtesy cars
here, just econo-sized rentals, vintage Hondas sagging under the
weight of too many miles and minivans sporting bumpers with the
telltale striations of metal spikes. Even the tour's
headquarters can usually be found in the lot--an RV and a
trailer that have been converted into badly upholstered mobile

The Futures tour has always been about mobility--upward, one
hopes, but at the very least from one far-flung town to the
next. Last week the Futures road show rolled into San Diego to
kick off its 19th season, and though the means of transportation
looked familiar, the tour itself was heading into uncharted
territory. In the last few months the Futures has taken on a new
title sponsor, Southwestern Bell Communications, put together
its second straight million-dollar season and, at long last,
been designated by the LPGA as its official developmental tour.
This has brought credibility and name recognition and, more
tangibly, coveted LPGA cards to the top three finishers on the
Futures' 1999 money list. Marilyn Lovander, the Futures' alltime
leading money winner, likens the development of the tour to an
upgrade "from a bicycle to a Cadillac."

Lovander, though, kept the tour in touch with its roots by
winning the San Diego Classic, holding off Jen Hanna and Eunice
Choi by a stroke in the gloaming last Friday. Her $5,300 check
pushed her career earnings past $176,000. She has been playing
the Futures tour since the mid-'80s, and her favorite story
about the bad old days is of a long-ago trip from Florida to
California that began as a 12-car caravan. By the time these
gypsies made it to the West Coast, the wagon train was down to
two cars. Lovander is the Crash Davis of the Futures tour, but
she has mixed feelings about being the queen of the minor
leagues. "I'm proud of how consistent I've played out here, but
I'm not sure if I want that to be my legacy," she says. "I'd
like another crack at the LPGA." Lovander, 44, will try her hand
at a few Monday qualifiers on the LPGA tour but concedes that
with her victory in San Diego she'll probably now concentrate on
the remaining 18 Futures tournaments, hoping to lock up one of
the top three spots. "People think this is the easy way to the
LPGA tour, and that's far from true," says Lovander. "But right
now it's probably the best avenue for me."

Plenty of others share the feeling. To date 285 players have
coughed up the required $350 to register with the tour, and
every tournament through May has been booked solid since before
Feb. 1. (The top 70 from last year's money list have first dibs,
and the rest of the 144 slots go to those first to pay the
nonrefundable $100 deposit on their $310 entry fee.) The Futures
runs well-organized tournaments on quality courses, but there's
no denying that its popularity is largely due to one sad fact:
There's really nowhere else for these women to play. The Players
West tour, concentrated in California and Oregon, runs from
August to November but has smaller purses and famously shabby
courses. The Central Florida Challenge, held every winter,
consists of only six tournaments. The Asian tour is also just a
six-tournament slate, barring any local political unrest. (Many
Americans skipped last year's tournament in Indonesia, on the
advice of the State Department.) Most significant, the European
LPGA has been in disarray in recent years, which has left 43
international players representing 15 countries calling the
Futures home in '99.

If the on-course cursing last week in San Diego came in some
unrecognizable tongues, everything else about the Futures tour
felt like a regular pro tournament, only less so. There were no
marshals patrolling the 6,095-yard Fallbrook Golf Club, no
on-course scoreboards, no gallery ropes and, for the most part,
no gallery. There also weren't very many birdies, though the
unseasonably cold and wet weather that whipped through the area
had something to do with that. Lovander's winning score was just
four under, and only three other players broke par over 54
holes. However, nine women fell victim to the so-called
first-round cut, a Futures rule whereby anyone who shoots higher
than 86 in the opening round is automatically bounced from the
tournament. (This included retired tennis star Gigi Fernandez,
who, in her first pro tournament--as an amateur under a
sponsor's exemption--rang up a 42-45.) "You can't compare our
scores to the guys'. That kind of misses the point," says
Jennifer Sweeney, a second-year Futures player who knows
something about the men's game, having caddied for the last
three years on the PGA and Nike tours for her boyfriend,
Jonathan Kaye.

An admirable esprit de corps pervades the Futures tour, where
every player tries to shoot a number but, failing that, seems
grateful just to have had the opportunity. "I don't think most
people understand how important it is for us to have a stable
tour, run in a professional manner, where we can strive to
better ourselves," says Jan Kleiman, who has been playing the
Futures tour, off and on, since 1984. "Shoot, I remember when
Eloise used to have trouble scraping together 40 players."

Eloise would be the redoubtable Ms. Trainor, the Futures founder
and still the tour's president. Trainor worked in pro shops in
the Tampa area in her mid-20s and dreamed of the LPGA tour, but
she had no place to develop her game. "I came along before
college golf," the 50-year-old Trainor says. "Like so many
girls, I wasn't competition-ready."

In 1981 she took matters into her own hands, and the Tampa Bay
Mini-Tour was born. The first tournament drew 53 curious players
competing for a $5,000 purse made up entirely of their entry
fees. In 1984 Trainor renamed her baby the Futures tour and
guaranteed purses for the first time. The tour rolled on, with
nothing but a huge line of credit and Trainor's unwavering
faith. In 19 years Trainor has never missed a tournament (a
streak that ought to make Cal Ripken blush), and she didn't draw
a salary until nine years ago. "I think Eloise is one of the
most overlooked heroes in the development of women's golf," says
Michelle Bell, last year's leading money winner with $49,526.
"She had a vision, and she clung to it despite unbelievable
obstacles. I'm pretty sure she has plowed every nickel she's
ever made back into the tour."

Trainor is rightfully proud of the caliber of tournaments she
produced on a shoestring budget, as well as the quality of
players. In 1999 more than 160 Futures alumnae are members of
the LPGA, and the list reads like a who's who of women's golf,
including Laura Davies, Tammie Green, Rosie Jones, Michelle
McGann, Dottie Pepper and Karrie Webb. All told, Futures grads
can claim more than 175 LPGA victories, including 19 majors.
Nevertheless, the Futures' financial underpinnings have always
been shaky, which explains the LPGA's previous wariness of a
formal relationship.

The Futures' fortunes began to turn in August 1996, when Zayra
Calderon, a tack-sharp native of Costa Rica, bought half
ownership of the tour. Calderon may be a senior vice president
at Cigna, the monolithic health care company, but she devotes,
in her words, "Saturdays, Sundays and all my vacation time to
the tour." (This claim is slightly suspect, considering that she
is the five-time defending club champ at Weston Hills Golf and
Country Club, in Fort Lauderdale, the former home of the PGA
Tour's Honda Classic.) Calderon, 48, speaks five languages, plus
businessese. Last week she spoke of having outsourced the tour's
nongolf operations, thereby streamlining the operation, of plans
to brand the Futures name with a soon-to-be-launched marketing
campaign, and of leveraging the LPGA name into more local
sponsorship deals. Under Calderon's direction (she's the CEO)
the tour has, for the first time, been in the black (three years
running), and she was the one who hammered out the deal with the
LPGA, which also stipulates that numbers four through 10 on the
Futures money list earn a free pass to the LPGA's Q school finals.

There is plenty more to Calderon's business plan. She foresees a
schedule of 25 events, including two with special formats--a
mixed-team tournament with either the Nike tour or Golden State
mini-tour and a pro-am with celebrities and athletes of both
sexes. She has also pledged to upgrade the purses, which average
$52,600. The goal is to get them to 75K within two years and
100K within five. (By comparison, the purses of the 30 events on
the Nike tour average about $250,000.) "We want to allow all of
our players to recoup their expenses and to send our top players
to the LPGA tour with some money in the bank," Calderon says. To
help acclimate its players to LPGA life, the Futures has
mirrored its big sister's operations in as many ways as
possible. For example, the Futures fields have adopted the
LPGA's numbers, 144 golfers cut to a low 70 and ties, although
only the low 50 get paid (using the word loosely: 50th place in
San Diego earned $49).

This copycatting might explain why Vicki Goetze-Ackerman felt so
at home at the San Diego Classic, even though it was her first
Futures event. While the two-time U.S. Amateur champ and former
NCAA titlist has never fulfilled her early promise,
Goetze-Ackerman has been a staple on the LPGA for the past five
seasons. She struggled mightily in '98, free-falling to 171st on
the money list, which prompted her to dust off the irons she had
used in college and spend the winter overhauling her grip and
swing plane. The Classic was to be the first barometer of
whether all the work was worth it, and the results were
encouraging. Goetze-Ackerman shot three straight 72s, good for a
tie for fifth and a check for $1,750. "I couldn't crack an egg
last year," she said, "so to come out here and make five birdies
in my first round and finish even par was a big deal for me, I
don't care what tour it is."

There was another interesting Futures debut last week: Laura
Beisser, a 19-year-old with champagne-colored hair and caviar
dreams. Beisser turned pro "like yesterday," she said following
her inaugural round, a solid 76, as a pro. Although she was an
accomplished student and considered playing for Arizona State,
Beisser decided she wanted to concentrate on her game free of
distractions and get a taste of the pro lifestyle. With her
mom-caddie-chaperone, Deanna, in tow, Beisser played golf by day
and by night wrote postcards, watched TV and read magazines,
which skewed toward the glittery fashion books that have
obviously affected her look. Beisser's stated goal is to be No.
1 in the world within five years. "To be the best at what you
do, you have to sacrifice something," she says, dismissing
parties, books, boys and all the other stuff that comes with
college. In a miserable drizzle during the second round, Beisser
struggled to an 84, missing the cut by five strokes. "I'm far
from discouraged," she said, drowning her sorrows in the
clubhouse with a Diet Coke. "I may be young, but I try to have
perspective. Fred Couples doesn't make every cut, either. I
mean, in one week out here I feel like I've already learned so
much." Such as? "You know," Beisser said with the wide-eyed
enthusiasm of youth, "every hole out here counts, every shot.
You've got to make it count."

Despite the missed cut, Beisser is clearly headed in the right
direction, just like the tour she now calls home.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY J.D. CUBAN NO FRILLS Futures events, like last week's in San Diego (left and above), look shabby, but Trainor (opposite), who founded the tour in '81, knows how to keep her players happy.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [See caption above]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY J.D. CUBAN BLONDE AMBITION Beisser (right), a 19-year-old making her pro debut, missed the cut but still made her mom-caddie proud.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY J.D. CUBAN BEST CHANCE Lovander, 44, has been playing the Futures tour since the mid-'80s and views it as her ticket to the LPGA.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY J.D. CUBAN JUST LET ME PLAY One reason for the Futures' success is that young golfers like Holly Carriker, 23, have few other options.

"People don't understand how important it is for us to have a
stable tour, run in a professional manner," says Kleiman.