David. "If we ever have a boy, let's name him after David Pureifory of the Green Bay Packers," Da-i Ping remembers telling his wife, Julie. "He's fierce and tenacious." Which is how the Chinese-born jujitsu master, who had helped the defensive lineman rehab a serious knee injury, chose a name for his only son. ¬∂ Ping. "I have a name for my putter," Karsten Solheim exclaimed to his wife, Louise. "Listen to it ping." Which is how the Norwegian-born mechanical engineer, who had been tinkering with the club in his garage, chose a name for his golf equipment company.
David Ping. Until recently the name, full of sound and fury, signified nothing in professional golf. Since turning pro on a lark after Monday qualifying for the 2001 Buick Open, David Ping has stumbled through the low minors with one measly victory to show for it, at something called the IGTA Orlando Classic in '03. First place at the mini mini-tour event was worth $10,000--ensuring that, for one week at least, Ping would break even. Normally he doesn't. Last year he shelled out $70,000 pursuing bush-league golf and took in only $15,000.
"Basically, my wife, Karen, and I have been living off her salary," says the 27-year-old Ping. Karen, 27, makes a modest--very modest--income as a first-grade teacher at Ocean View Elementary in Whittier, Calif.
"David couldn't carry a second job," says his father, now a prominent sports agent. "You can't improve your game playing part time."
In May, David and Karen had $7.53 in the bank and a debt of $140,000--the result of loans, tournament entrance fees, travel expenses and nine maxed-out credit cards. To make things worse, Ping's sponsor, Slippers International, had given him the slip and dropped him. "All our friends and relatives knew we were struggling," he says, "but none of them knew how much."
So much, it turns out, that it had become a weekly ritual for Karen to phone her husband after a rough opening round and beg him to "shoot a 66" so he would make the cut and they could pay the rent. More often than not he'd shoot a 67 or a 68: Over the past year Ping missed the cut by a stroke or two in 15 tournaments. "You can only take so many doors getting slammed in your face before you start second-guessing yourself," he says. "I got to the point where I wanted to puke on myself."
By the end of April, Ping says, he was only a few weeks away from quitting the game and becoming a glass salesman. "The worst nightmare of any golfer who dreams about joining the PGA Tour is knowing you have to go back to a nine-to-five job," Ping says. His dream was becoming that nightmare.
All that changed on May 11 when fortune smiled--broadly and unexpectedly--on Ping and his partner, Garth Mulroy, at the inaugural Big Stakes Match Play (Golf Plus, May 23) in Mesquite, Nev. Having been fronted the $100,000 entry fee by NFL linemen Barry Stokes and Ross Verba and having survived the first five rounds, Ping and Mulroy, a 26-year-old from South Africa who had qualified for only a handful of Nationwide tour events, beat club pros Rick Hartmann and Mark Mielke 2 up in the final.
It was a lovely TV moment for a journeyman who hadn't been good enough to make the roster of either the Coastal Carolina or the Michigan golf teams. The winning Big Stakes team's take was $3 million, the richest prize in golf history. "A week later a check for the entire amount arrived at my apartment in California," Ping recalls. "Talk about surreal: I actually prayed to God that the check would clear."
Thankfully, it did. After paying back Stokes and Verba their $100,000, Mulroy, Ping and the football players split $2.9 million, each pocketing $725,000. Ping settled his debts and forgot about selling glass.
Since then his life seems to have gone into a curious period of suspension, akin to the hang time of cartoon characters who go on running horizontally off the edge of a cliff until they plummet. "We haven't changed our lifestyles, and we're not eating at fancier restaurants," Ping says. "We're trying to be smart with our money. We want to be the same ordinary people we were before all this happened to us."
Ping is disarmingly ordinary; he would melt into any crowd. He's a player with negligible talent, but he does possess inviolable determination. "I've always believed in my dream," he says, "and the dream is playing my heart out until I make the PGA Tour."
These days, everyone he knows (and some he doesn't) seems to want to dream for him. Friends, relatives and the most casual of acquaintances feel compelled to advise him on peeling out his billfold. A member of his home course, the Hacienda Golf Club in La Habra Heights, took him aside at a gathering and counseled, "I'm only going to tell you one thing: The best investment you could make would be to buy a home in Southern California."
A few minutes later another member cornered him and said, "Just don't buy a house in Southern California. It's the worst investment you could make."
Ping smiled and introduced the two real estate experts. As they argued the merits of the local market, Ping slunk away. "When I left the club, those two were still debating," he says. "The minute someone tries to sell me something, I hit the door and run as fast as I can."
Still, he must have bought somebody's sales pitch: He recently pumped cash into five oil wells and six natural gas lines in Tennessee and Kentucky. "I had people go out and confirm that the sites actually exist," he says sheepishly. "As long as the ventures are successful, Karen and I don't care if gas prices go up."
Perhaps the sagest investment advice was offered by his backer Stokes, a tackle for the Atlanta Falcons. "I told David to buy himself a present, like a car, and put the rest away," Stokes says. "You have got to congratulate yourself, right?"
Ping had been perfectly content tooling from tournament to tournament in his 2000 Volkswagen Jetta, which had 140,000 miles on the odometer. "I told Karen I could drive it another 100,000 miles," he says. "She thought that was a great idea until she took the wheel and the engine started cutting out. That's when she demanded that I get new wheels." So he sprang for a BMW 330i (price: $45,000).
Aside from that, Ping has been relatively frugal. He and Karen still share a tiny condo in La Habra that's scrunched into a development off South Beach Boulevard, about 20 miles from an actual beach. Though there's a public course across the street, Ping practices at Hacienda. "The annual fee at Hacienda is a little expensive," he says, "but it winds up cheaper than playing the munis."
For Ping and Mulroy just about anything is cheaper than playing the PGA Tour these days. Since the Big Stakes, Mulroy has made the cut in only one of his three starts on the Nationwide tour. Ping has won about $1,000 on the Golden State tour, and in his lone appearance on the PGA Tour--he was given a sponsor's exemption at the Buick Open in July--Ping shot 77-75 to miss the cut by 12 strokes. "I have to stay humble and work with what I've got," says Ping. What he lacks at the moment is a consistent long game. Still, the 5'10", 160-pound Ping has enough confidence in his short one to sign up for the first stage of Q school next month in Murietta, Calif.
"David fully realizes he's not Tour material," says Andy Thuney, head pro at Hacienda. "He's good, but not great, and now he knows what it's like to go up against the heavy hitters. The truth is he needs a partner to play well. If he's going to make a living in the sport, it has to be in events like the Big Stakes."
Ping says his dream cannot be deferred. "It has never been about winning one big tournament," he says. "It's about making my [Tour] card."
Whether or not Ping ultimately dreams on, his wife is happy simply to be free of creditors. "The best part of all," Karen says, "is that I didn't have to teach summer school."
"We haven't changed our lifestyles, and we're not eating at fancier restaurants," Ping says. "WE'RE TRYING TO BE SMART WITH OUR MONEY."
Photographs by Todd Bigelow/Aurora
¬† CARRYING ON
Ping, who came up empty in his two PGA Tour starts, plans to take a third crack at Q school next month.
When Ping and his partner won the $3 million Big Stakes in May, he had $7.53 in the bank and $140,000 in debts.
Photographs by Todd Bigelow/Aurora
¬† SCHOOL'S OUT
The best thing about David's victory? Wife Karen, a first-grade teacher, didn't have to work this summer.