"Golf pro" is short for professional golfer. A professional golfer is somebody who earns a living either by competing in golf tournaments or by giving golf lessons. The top golfers in the world make millions of dollars per year, but the vast majority of golf professionals are simply teachers at clubs and resorts. These teachers are normally scratch golfers--in other words very good players--but not good enough to earn a living competing professionally.
Virtually every career golf pro is accredited by the PGA (Professional Golfers' Association) through a program called PGM (Professional Golf Management).
To qualify for PGA's PGM program, you have to be at least 18 years old, have a high school diploma and pass a background check. If you're worried that something on your record will disqualify you, be sure to contact the PGA directly. Don't lie or try to cover anything up. The background check costs $60 so you may want to contact them before you have to pay that fee.
Before starting the program, you'll have to pass a qualifying test as well as a players' test. The qualifying test is a written test that covers basic schools of golf knowledge such as the rules of golf and the history of the PGA. Through the PGA website, you can purchase study materials for this test as well as register for a prep course. All the study materials and the test registration will cost you around $240. The qualifying test is administered at locations throughout the United States.
You'll also have to pass the Player's Ability Test. This test consists of scoring at most 15 over par on 36 holes played in one day. Fewer than 20% of those who take this test pass it. This test is meant to weed out those who aren't good enough to give lessons. In order to teach golf, you have to be close to a scratch golfer which takes years of practice. For this reason, most golf pros are lifelong golfers who are not quite good enough to compete an elite level. Practice your game diligently before taking this test to make sure your stroke is in peak form. Yes, you're able to retake this test, but each attempt (including the initial attempt) costs $100.
After you've passed the qualifying test and the players' test, you'll have to prove that you've been "eligibly employed" for at least six months before you're able to start for The PGM apprenticeship program. Many golf related jobs count towards being "eligibly employed." You can be anything from a college golf coach to a rules' official. Here's a link to the PGA's job qualification table. Note that if you play in an amateur tournament, your employment time prior to that tournament will be nullified.
PGA Professional Golf Management Program
So once you've completed all the steps above, you'll be able to register as an apprentice in the Golf Management Program upon completion of which you'll be a certified PGA professional.
There are three levels of the program, each of which will cost you between $2500-$3000. The bulk of that fee is to cover the travel expenses and lodgings for each level's 'seminar' in which you have to travel to Palm Beach, Florida for one week of in person instruction. Each day of the seminar, you'll have boot camp type study sessions that cover a particular course (sometimes two courses in one day).
The courses for level one are Business Planning, Customer Relations, Tournament Operations, Golf Cart Fleet Management and Intro To Teaching/Golf Club Performance.
The courses for level two are Golf Operations, Intermediate Teaching, Merchandising and Turf Grass Management.
The courses for level three are Food & Beverage, Advanced Teaching & Golf Club Fitting, Player Development & Teaching Business, Human Resources & Supervising & Delegating. Seminar three is special because on the final day, you'll give a group presentation known as the "Final Experience" presentation.
These seminars are a great opportunity to network with like minded golf professionals. In addition to the seminar, each level consists of a work experience portfolio that must include video clips of you teaching golf or implementing some of what you learned at the seminar. After you hand in your work experience portfolio, you'll have to pass a computer based final exam at a test center. This final exam will cover the courses that you took at the seminar. You can retake these final exams as many times as you'd like, but it will cost $30 each time. As long as you study, you shouldn't have to take these exams more than once. Once you pass level one's test, you'll be able to advance to level two. Once you pass level two's test, you'll be able to advance to level three. Once you pass level three's test, you'll be done.
It's also important to note that if you have a college degree, you can count that degree towards one or more courses which means you won't have to take every class. You'll save some money as well as get your certification more quickly.
You'll need to complete each level within two years of starting that level. I.E. Once you register for level [insert number here], you'll need to complete that level within two years. Once you register for level one and officially begin the program, you have eight years to finish the entire program. Most people finish it in two.
Once you're PGA certified, there are a lot of ways to monetize your golf expertise. To start, you'll be able to get a job as a golf pro somewhere. If you don’t have much experience, you may have to shop your services around a little, but you'll find work eventually. Most golf professionals work for country clubs or resorts. Some work for public courses. You could also offer private lessons independent of any golf course facility either as a part time job or a full time job once you have an established client base. You can coach golf at the high school or collegiate level. You can start your own pro shop that has a driving range out back and offer lessons in addition to selling goods. You can set up a school that helps aspiring golf pros train for their PGA players' test. There are many different paths you can take.
If you're a very good golf coach, you can train professional golfers who play on the PGA tour. These guys will pay you a lot of money since they make so much money. Take Butch Harmon, for example. Butch Harmon is one of the most well known swing coaches on tour. He's worked with Greg Norman, Tiger Woods and many other top golfers. As a young man, he competed professionally on tour for one year. One year! He was a very good golfer, but it's not like he was an absolute stud. He went on to coach some of the best who ever played the game. Interesting fact: after Butch Harmon quit competing professionally, he was the private swing coach for King Hussan of Morocco.
Basically, golf pros who are super successful are the ones that create their own brand and then make instructional videos or market themselves through media outlets such as television or the internet. One example of a well known golf pro who did this is Mike Breed. He never played on the American tour although he did play on the South African tour for a very brief period of time.
For about 25 years, Mike Breed worked as a golf pro at many clubs in the Northeast such as Birchwood Country Club in Westport, Connecticut and now has his own show on the Golf Channel. He's also a golf commentator for the Golf Channel. As long as you just keep plugging away and improving, your brand will develop as you help more people. Once you're really confident in your ability to improve peoples' golf games, you can market yourself on a large scale by writing eBooks (Mike Breed has done this) or starting your own YouTube channel of instructional videos and garner a following that way.
Salary & Lifestyle
The median salary for golf pros who work at a club is around $40,000 per year. But the Mike Breed's of the world are making much, much more than that. You can make a lot of money in this industry if you brand yourself correctly and then sell your brand.
Obviously golf is a warm weather sport. Many golf pros work in affluent neighborhoods in the Northern United States during the Summer and then migrate to Florida for the Winter. Many just stay down South or in places like Southern California year round.
If you love playing golf, being a golf pro will be more play than work. You'll have the opportunity to play golf every day, and you'll get free equipment from sponsors. Your clubs will be free, for example, and you'll get a commission every time one of your clients buys a set of clubs from your sponsor.
Another big plus about the golf industry is that many women hold prominent roles. The LPGA is very popular. Many clubs have female head pros. Women can make as much as men in this industry which is rare.
The hours can be a little screwy sometimes. You'll have to wake up very early in the morning to cater to certain clients. Once the sun sets, however, your day will be over. Weekends will be jam packed. You'll normally get Monday and Tuesday off if you're working for a club.
If you work at a club, there's also a social aspect to the job that can't be overlooked. If you're the head pro of a club, you're in charge of a golfing community. You need to remember member's names. You need to chat with them. You'll need to host social events and deal with any issues that arise.
Depending on your contract with a particular club, your family may be able to use that club's facilities which is a nice perk. You'll also get free meals as mostly every golf course and golf club has an affiliated restaurant or café. Like any other service industry job, being a golf pro is somewhat of a hustle. You'll have a lot of competition from very talented golfers. You'll have to get good at what you do to maintain your clients for the long haul, which is hard because there's no set curriculum to improving a golf swing. Different people have different theories and every swing is different. There are some pretty ugly swings on tour (Jim Furyk—sorry man) that do amazing things. But if you genuinely love golf, your passion and enthusiasm will shine through to your clients. Often clients just need to feel that passion and enthusiasm and then that client will work to improve their swing on their own. No golf pro has the magic secret that will turn their clients into the next Tiger Woods. Everybody wants a quick fix, but at the end of day, the clients who truly improve will use you as a resource, not a crutch.