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October 29, 2008

As he strives for the PGA Tour, Hall's notoriety can be a double-edged sword

From: - Oct 29, 2008

by Dave Seanor, Golf Examiner

(Part 3 of a multi-part series.)
Kevin Hall’s early forays into pro golf were promising.

In 2005, his first full season as a professional, Hall twice earned spots in Nationwide Tour events via Monday qualifying – no small feat in itself – at Virginia Beach, Va., and Rochester, N.Y. He tied for 30th in the latter, the Xerox Classic, and banked a check for $3,300. The following week he played in the Nationwide Tour’s Cleveland Open on a sponsor’s exemption and finished 66th, adding $1,215 to his bankroll.

Not bad for someone fresh out of college, and a late bloomer at that.

Sandwiched among his Nationwide starts was a coveted sponsor’s exemption into the U.S. Bank Championship at Milwaukee. That Hall was given a pass into a PGA Tour event wasn’t surprising. A year earlier, he had garnered considerable attention as the deaf, African-American golfer from Ohio State who had routed the field at the Big 10 championship tournament.

Percy Hall, Kevin’s father, was appreciative of the U.S. Bank invitation but wary of its implications.

“I’m sure that in the beginning, having a good story – being African-American and deaf and all that – has its positives,” he says. “But then you have to play the game. We’ve explained (to Kevin) if he can get in (on sponsors’ exemptions) because they want to use his race, that’s fine. But you are there to be a player. And you get in because you can play the game. It’s just a plus if that (notoriety) can be used, but at the end of the day you’ve got to play the game.”

Kevin opened with a 68 in Milwaukee but shot 74 in Round 2 and missed the cut. Two months later, he received a sponsor’s exemption into the Valero Texas Open, where he also failed to advance to the weekend.

Those results simply reinforced Percy Hall’s warning to his son that playing the “race card” not only has a short shelf life, but also could hinder his progress as a golfer.

”Same thing with the disability,” Percy Hall says. “Even when he took the ACT (college entrance test) he could have had more time because he was deaf, but we said ‘no’ – no special treatment. Because you’re not going to get special treatment out in the world. We don’t want him to get in the habit of getting special treatment.”

Yet the Halls also believe Kevin has some responsibility as a role model for people with disabilities and aspiring African-American golfers.

“How many African-Americans who are deaf are out there playing professional golf?” Kevin Hall asks rhetorically. “I’m the only one who’s doing it right now, so that in itself is a story. It’s (the media’s) job to chase stories like that. But I do wish the media would see me for what I am – someone who has a little bit of skill in golf – but I know that will never happen.”

Sponsor exemptions kept happening in 2006 – three on the PGA Tour (Pebble Beach, New Orleans and The Memorial, hosted by fellow Ohio State alum Jack Nicklaus) and two on the Nationwide Tour (LaSalle Bank and Knoxville). Hall didn't break par in 11 rounds and missed the cut in all five starts. He also missed the cut in two Hooters Tour tournaments for which he had qualified.

Tournaments on the PGA Tour typically are allotted eight sponsor exemptions, with the following restrictions: Two must be given to PGA Tour members who are not otherwise exempt; at least two must go to players who were among the top 25 at the previous year’s PGA Tour Q-School or the top 25 on the previous year’s Nationwide Tour money list; and amateurs must have a 0 handicap or better.

Translation: Offers to players like Hall, who has no status with the PGA Tour, are a rarity.

“Some people might be a little jealous of the opportunities he’s gotten because of his circumstances, “ says Neal Grusczynski, a friend of Hall’s who also competes on the Hooters Tour. “But no one but Kevin knows what he’s gone through. He deserves it.”

Few people outside Hall’s inner circle knew that behind his dismal showing in 2006 was a loss of confidence suffered after a meltdown during Second Stage of Q-School the previous fall. Hall had just made a swing change to promote a draw and switched from a mishmash of brands to a full bag of Nike clubs. He was co-medalist at First Stage, but soon lost whatever magic he had found.

“I guess two weeks weren’t enough to implement the changes,” Hall says. “When Second Stage started, I wasn’t really comfortable hitting the draw, so I hopped on the ‘bogey train’ and just couldn’t get off it. I didn’t know what to do and I went from tying for first in the First Stage to finishing dead last in the Second Stage. I wasn’t in a great place mentally after that and had zero confidence in my game.”

Hall stayed in Cincinnati through the winter, working on his conditioning, hitting balls at a heated range, and putting on a synthetic green at an indoor practice facility.

“I also worked with a sports psychologist,” Hall says.

The disappointing summer came to an end when Hall finally cashed a check on the Hooters Tour in September, earning $789.50 thanks to a tie for 60th at the Longdale Ford Championship. Despite the travails, Hall says he began to see “some positive results and get back some confidence in my ability to pull off shots.”

No PGA Tour sponsor exemptions were in the offing for Hall in 2007. He failed in a handful of attempts to qualify for Nationwide events, but was granted three sponsor exemptions on the secondary circuit. He missed the cut each time. He also missed qualifying for the U.S. Open by a shot.

During the previous winter, however, Hall had finished 5th at the Hooters Tour qualifying tournament, earning a full exemption for ’07. He made 12 starts on the Hooters Tour and finished in the money seven times, earning just over $9,900.

Unlike 2005 and ’06, Hall toiled anonymously, save for some coverage in local papers at Hooters venues. He declined an invitation to participate in the Golf Channel’s “Big Break” reality series, opting instead to focus on real tournament golf.

The Hooters Tour runs a transitional series of tournaments in Florida, from the end of October through late February, called the Winter Series Professional Tour. The tournaments are three-day, 54-hole affairs, as opposed to the standard four days and 72 holes. But the usual suspects compete, all striving to reach the same goal.

For Hall, that three-month stretch was a breakthrough. He finished in the money in 10 of 11 starts, including seven top-12s. On Jan. 17, at Forest Lake Golf Club in suburban Orlando, he scored his first victory. With it came a check for $11,909.

That’s a significant chunk of change for a struggling mini-tour player. Especially someone like Kevin Hall, whose resources are limited.

Percy Hall has been retired since 2001, after working 35 years as a meat cutter at Hillshire Farms, a Cincinnati food distributor. Jackie Hall retired in September from her job as a business manager in the Cincinnati office of Ryder Transportation Systems, where she worked for 30 years. When they were employed, Kevin’s parents helped seed his pro golf career. These days, Hall’s quest to join the PGA Tour is financed solely by his earnings from tournaments and outings, and a $20,000-a-year endorsement deal with Cincinnati Bell.

Hall’s equipment and some apparel come courtesy of Cleveland Golf, with whom he’s had a non-paying endorsement agreement for two seasons. Likewise, Titleist supplies golf balls in return for exposure and loyalty. The equipment barter helps, but pursuing his dream still equates to an outlay by Hall of roughly $40,000 a year. The entry fee for this week’s Q-School alone was $4,500.

There’s also the undisclosed cost of instruction. Hall works with Bobby Cole, a teacher at the Jim McLean School of Golf in Miami. Cole is trying to wean Hall from his dependence on a right-to-left ball flight.

“At the high level he’s playing at, you’ve got to go both ways,” Cole says, meaning that Hall needs to be able to summon a left-to-right flight when that’s what it takes to attack certain hole locations.

Cole cautions that Hall sometimes can be overly aggressive on the course. But he cites that same fearlessness as an advantage on the practice range.

“A lot of players are afraid to do something new. They don’t trust it,” Cole said. “Kevin is very open-minded (about swing adjustments). He’s not intimidated and he’s very trusting.”

Case in point: A month ago, Hall switched to a belly putter. He’s been happy with the results, which is one reason he arrived at Q-School full of optimism, even though his Hooters Tour performance over the summer hadn’t matched his Winter Series campaign.

Hall made the cut in six of 10 Hooters starts, earning $9,103. He made two starts on the Nationwide Tour via sponsor exemptions, missing the cut in Athens, Ga., and placing 60th at the BMW Charity Pro-Am (paired with former Golf Channel anchor Jennifer Mills). His best showing of the summer was third place at the Ohio Open.

Hall entered fewer tournaments than in 2007, but dismisses the suggestion that he played a softer schedule this year.

“I tried not to bunch a lot of tournaments together because it’s such a tough thing to do when you’re driving on the road to all those places, playing a full week of tournament golf, over and over,” Hall says. “It’s easy to get burned out.”

As a result, Hall says, he was in contention several times heading into the final round.

“I think I’ve given myself enough opportunities to learn what it takes to seal the deal and how to handle the pressure of being near the lead,” Hall says. “I think this year has taught me to be a mentally tougher golfer.”

Mental toughness is routinely put to the test at Q-School, but Hall's psyche suffered an especially cruel blow during a chilly, windy Round 1 at Treyburn Country Club in Durham, N.C. Hall didn't card a birdie all day and shot 6-over-par 78. It wouldn't have been so bad had he not suffered a bizarre triple-bogey 6 on the par-3 17th (his eighth hole after starting on No. 10).

Hall hit his tee shot into a hazard, took a penalty drop, then hit a pitch shot that trickled to the edge of the green. The putting surface was not well defined, however, and after Hall marked the ball another player in the threesome questioned whether the ball was actually on the green. A rules official was summoned, and it was determined that the ball had come to rest on the fringe, meaning Hall was penalized another stroke for improperly marking it.

With three rounds to go, Hall can ill-afford more penalties if he expects to advance to Second Stage. Even a hot, new belly putter can't offset that kind of misfortune.

(Next: Coping as “the black guy.”)

© 2008