The developmental golf leagues that dot Florida, the minor leagues of the sport, were quite the nomadic existence for Carl Wakely.
A Sarasota resident, Wakely, 27, was making trips to Orlando, West Palm Beach and far-flung places in between three or four times a week. The grind paid little, unless Wakely played near-perfect golf, many times under intense pressure. That rarely happened.
So in early 2010, Wakely, a native of Wales, gave up the tour life. But he didn't give up golf.
Wakely, instead, launched his own tour — an unusual step for a young golfer. A year and half later, Wakely's creation, the Sarasota-based West Florida Golf Tour, has become a popular and viable option for golfers statewide, even nationwide. “It started off pretty happenstance,” says Wakely. “But now it has turned into something pretty big.”
Open to men and women, the tour holds a series of events from one to three days on courses from Tampa to Naples. Courses include the Founders Club in Sarasota; the Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club and Lakewood Ranch Country Club in east Manatee County; Old Corkscrew Golf Club in Estero; and River Hills Country Club in Tampa.
The tour has awarded $554,397 in prize money in the first 18 months, winnings that come from membership fees, event entry fees and sponsorships. One-day events cost a golfer $170, two-day tournaments cost $340 and a three-day event is $450.
An integral differentiating factor for the West Florida Golf Tour, says Wakely, is those event fees are less than most other tours. Wakely says the goal is to hold events so golfers can move up in the sport and possibly make the next level, such as PGA Qualifying School. The tour, he says, isn't for golfers who seek a onetime big payday.
“There has never been a tour like this on the west coast of Florida before,” says Wakely. “The (other) tours are high stakes gambling. Ours is low stakes gambling. You're not going to get rich on ours, but you're not going to burn through your money.”
Professional golfers who have played in recent West Florida Golf Tour events include top-ranked women's golfer Brittany Lincicome and Robert Gamez, a three-time PGA tour winner. Gamez has told Wakely the tour is the perfect place for him to keep sharp while the PGA is in its off-season.
Younger competitors who have played on the tour include Andrew Giuliani, son of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and James Leadbetter, son of well-known golf instructor David Leadbetter.
Regular tour players range in age from 15 to 62, says Wakely. The average age is 25-58, a bracket that includes Wakely, who grew up a soccer player, not a golfer. But when he was 14, Wakely says he realized he was good at golf and pursued that sport. He later played golf at Virginia Tech.
Wakely still plays golf, but the business of the West Florida Golf Tour now comes first. “This isn't what we thought it would be when we started out,” says Wakely. “But it just grew. We want this to be the hub. We want this to be the place to go.”