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August 18, 2019

On the fringes of professional long drive, competitors follow the money to tournaments all over the globe. One problem: Those events don’t always pay up. Exhibit A: A tournament in China last year that offered the largest purse in long-drive history … yet still hasn’t made good. The sport’s tight-knit nature and culture of silence have made players reluctant to speak out. Until now.

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This past November, Wes Patterson, a 30-year-old long-drive professional from Jupiter, Fla., boarded a flight in West Palm Beach bound for China. It was Thanksgiving week, a hectic and expensive time to travel, but Patterson (photo above, in gray shirt) had taken on the cost and inconvenience for a chance to tee it up in a tantalizing international event.

As promoted online, the kickoff tournament in the Global Infinity Series had the makings of a long-drive lollapalooza: a three-day competition, staged at a mega golf resort in Hainan province, with a purse of $400,000 that organizers hailed as “the biggest prize pool in the history of the sport.”

To further sweeten the pot, the company behind the competition — International Golf Associates New Zealand, or IGANZ — was offering $10,000 for the longest single drive, along with a lifetime exemption for the overall winner into future IGANZ events.

Prize money in long drive would never be confused with PGA Tour purses. Over the course of a season, competitors can count on a just a handful of events that might cover more than their travel expenses. Even the World Long Drive Championship, which is run by NBC Sports/Golf Channel and is recognized as the sport’s most prestigious annual competition, pays out a total of $270,000 — or roughly a quarter of the total purse at a mid-season event on the Korn Ferry Tour.

With pickings relatively slim, few long drivers make a go of it full-time; most hold down other jobs to pay their bills. The China event presented itself as an extravagant outlier, with an advertised first-place prize of $150,000 that was more than what most top long drivers earn in a year.

If that sounded almost too good to be true, to big hitters like Patterson, it was also too tempting to resist.

A former collegiate baseball star, Patterson was a relative newcomer to long drive who, since his 2017 rookie season, had risen to 13th in the world rankings. Still, he had to scramble to earn his keep, supplementing his winnings on the grid with appearances at golf clinics and corporate outings.

“Looking back, maybe you could say that I should have seen the red flags in (China), that we all should have seen the red flags,” Patterson says. “But when you’re talking about that kind of money, you don’t want to be the guy that missed out.”

Not that certain details didn’t give Patterson pause. For starters, though IGANZ had provided players with written assurance that the prize money in China was “confirmed,” the source of that money was unclear. IGANZ made no mention of corporate sponsors, nor did it claim to have a TV deal in place. No matter how you did the math, the entry fees of $750 per player were nowhere near enough to cover the purse. Olna Ford, IGANZ’s founding director and a 47-year-old former New Zealand beauty pageant contestant, told players that to fund the payout she had secured “investors,” though she declined to identify them.

Word travels fast on the long-drive circuit. Throughout the summer and early fall of 2018, the sport was abuzz over the Global Infinity Series. While some players voiced skepticism — if it sounded too good to be true, it probably was — others took comfort in the fact that IGANZ had run long-drive events before, albeit for much smaller purses, and, according to a number of competitors who’d taken part in them, purses and appearance fees had been paid.

The time came to decide. Weighing the benefits against the risks, dozens of long drivers, male and female, including top-ranked players in both divisions, figured it was worth the gamble to get on a plane.

It wasn’t long after touching down in China, a day before the scheduled start of the event, that Patterson saw cause for concern. At Mission Hills, the 10-course golf resort that was meant to host the competition, nothing in the way of tournament infrastructure had been set up: no grandstands, no banners, not even the 45-to-70-yard-wide grid customarily used for such events. Resort representatives said that the driving range where players had expected to find the rectangular competitive field was off limits because IGANZ had not paid to reserve it.

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