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Mini-tours give Arizona golfers the chance to chase the dream

Nick Cocalis lines up a putt on the 15th green of Troon North Golf Club on a Pepsi Tour event. (Cronkite News)

SCOTTSDALE — Eleven years ago, Nick Cocalis packed up his golf clubs for good.

He had transferred from the prestigious Division III Methodist University golf program only to be cut from Marquette’s golf team. The game that once consumed Cocalis’ life started to take a backseat to a new passion: faith.

Cocalis said after an overseas mission trip, he experienced a relationship with Christ, stronger than anything he had felt before. Even stronger than his love for the game of golf.

“That (trip) really kind of changed my perspective on life and the role that golf played in my life,” Cocalis said. “I wanted to serve the Lord with my life and get around and see the world, serve others and help where I could.”

Cocalis started a non-profit group with his college roommate called Next Step Ministries, leading student mission trips that focused on community development. He built his non-profit into a national success, aiding in everything from rural projects to national disaster relief. But after almost a decade of serving communities around the country, Cocalis realized he had an unfinished mission of his own.

“Even though I loved what I was doing, it just didn’t feel like I was waking up every morning with a huge challenge in front of me,” Cocalis said.

In Arizona, and other parts of the Southwest, golfers like Cocalis compete in a competitive mini-tour circuits, giving them the opportunity to chase their professional dream.

Mini-tour events are the epitome of having faith. The events are open to all professional and amatuer competitors, as long as they pay the entry fee, and the payout is based on how many players show up to the event. The number can range from hundreds of golfers to the five that showed up at the Pepsi Tour’s Troon North event recently.

Professional golf is set up much like baseball. The PGA tour resembles the majors, the Web.com tour is Triple-A baseball and mini-tours are below both, serving as a Single-A team or a collegiate summer league.

Cocalis knew the complex hierarchy involved in professional golf and the time it takes to achieve PGA Tour status. So he immediately picked the clubs back up, playing in amateur tournaments around Wisconsin and even winning the 2016 Wisconsin State Golf Association Mid-Amateur tournament, after an eight-year hiatus from the game.

But to fulfill his childhood dream of playing on the PGA Tour, Cocalis knew he’d have to dedicate his life to the game, much like he devoted his life to Christ.

Cocalis and his wife moved to Scottsdale in January so he could start competing in competitive mini-tour events around the desert.

“(Moving) was more of an identity thing for me,” Cocalis said. “I really wanted to give it a full shot. I wanted to play and practice every day and have an opportunity to make a living doing it.”

But the mini-tour life is a grind. Cocalis led the Troon North tournament for 50 holes, but ultimately fell to second place, netting him only $600. The entry was $480 for members of the Pepsi Tour and $540 for non-members.

Still, some tournaments payout thousands of dollars. The leader on the Pepsi Tour has earned over $9,000 and the players can enter as many events they want on any mini-tour circuit they prefer. But usually only the top golfers on the circuit can make a real living playing mini-tours.

“Unfortunately, you do have to finish top-3 typically to make a living,” said Justin Searles, Chandler’s Lone Tree Golf Club professional, who plays mini-tours on the side. “If you win you create your own destiny.”

For most mini-tour players, it’s not about the payout, it’s about the experience of high-level competitive golf that they hope will propel them to the next level.

“These guys are scraping by to hopefully make the PGA tour because that’s their goal,” said Pepsi Tour Executive Director Art Jaramilo. (They) do this for the love of the game.”

Jaramilo said his mini-tour has survived because of the trust he’s built with the players. Referencing mini-tours in the past that have failed, he only takes a minimal amount of the players’ entry fees, just enough to keep the tour profitable and running.

“Our fee structure is based to where we get $30 per player per day — that’s not a lot,” Jaramilo said. “And we typically pay a third of the field.”

Cocalis echoed the mini-tour mantra, attesting that the level of competition is a bigger draw than the prize fund.

“The competition is absolutely there,” Cocalis said. “We’re playing golf in the greater-Phoenix area, where a lot of PGA tour players make home.”

Just a couple months ago, Cocalis played against PGA tour professional Joel Dahmen in an Arizona mini-tour event. Dahmen later went on to tie for 16th at the Wells Fargo Championship, beating the likes of Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas.

Next year, Cocalis will start qualifying school, a series of tournaments to determine if golfers are good enough to earn a Web.com Tour card. But for now, Cocalis is just happy to have the opportunity to play the game he loves on a professional stage.

“For me, this is just part of the journey,” Cocalis said. “It’s been an adventure for my wife and I. We love being able to wake up every day and live on faith, live a different life and experience a new community, new people and new challenges.”

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