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Golf Canada launches funding program to help prospects

Rebecca Lee-Bentham, Jennifer Kirby, Mackenzie Hughes and Albin Choi

Golf Canada

When golfer Mackenzie Hughes turned professional last year, he had confidence in his talent, but not in his bank account.

"I wasn't sure if I'd have enough money to play," says Hughes, a two-time Canadian Amateur champion from Dundas, Ont., who entered the pro ranks after a three-victory career in U.S. college golf at Kent State.

Missing his first three cuts playing on the third-tier PGA Tour Canada in 2013 did nothing to fill his pockets.

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With no guaranteed income and limited sponsorships, young golfers like Hughes face an enormous challenge surviving on tour. Seven-figure purses and multimillion-dollar endorsement deals await the world's best players, but staying in the game long enough to get those opportunities is a significant challenge. Many lose their way despite their potential.

A new program launched Monday night by Golf Canada, the game's governing body in this country, hopes to address that.

Golf Canada has selected Hughes and four other top prospects for its Young Pro program, giving each $15,000 a year and a host of support services, including coaching. The others are Albin Choi and Rebecca Lee-Bentham of Toronto, Jennifer Kirby of Paris, Ont., and Sue Kim of Langley, B.C.

The players can stay in the program as long as they reach certain performance benchmarks that show improvement. The men, for example, must reach the top 500 in the world ranking this year.

Jeff Thompson, Golf Canada's chief sport officer, said the goal of the program is to bridge the gap between a player's amateur days and a sustainable professional career.

It is also tied Canada's push to create competitive Olympians, similar to what Own the Podium has done for both Summer and Winter Games athletes. Golf returns to the Olympics in 2016 at Rio de Janeiro.

He said Golf Canada had to be "ruthless" in narrowing down the program recipients to five. Using data analysis, he said, the five are believed to be Canada's best hopes to become the next generation of champions.

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In Hughes's case, his 2013 season ended on a better note than it started. Much better. He won a PGA Tour Canada tournament, led the circuit's money list at the end of the season and graduated to the second-tier Tour this season.

At the program launch Monday in downtown Toronto, he said he would use the money to defray the high costs of travel. A Tour player, living frugally on the road as Hughes does (he often shares a room with Choi), still faces fixed costs of about $2,500 a week.

But the 23-year-old added the support services are just as valuable to him.

All five of the program's players were once part of Canada's national amateur team and enjoyed coaching, physical therapists and mental coaches as part of their training. Under the new program, they'll regain regular access to those services.

The money is coming out of Golf Canada's foundation, which derives revenue from private and corporate donors, as well as from pro-am tournaments held before the RBC Canadian Open and Canadian Pacific Women's Open.

The foundation would increase the amounts in coming years if its donations go up.

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"Every little bit helps," said Lee-Bentham, a third-year player on the LPGA Tour and Canada's highest-ranked female golfer, who has been largely on her own since turning pro. "I think we need more, but that's where we're heading for. This is just to get the program started."

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