Strictly speaking, anyone who earns money by playing or teaching golf can be considered a golf pro. The vast majority of golf pros, however, are instructors who likely play much less golf than the students they teach. A pro golfer is someone who plays golf for a living. The best pro golfers play on a major tour, such as the PGA Tour in the United States, or the European Tour. Other pro golfers play on development or mini-tours.
In the United States, golf pros are typically members of the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA). PGA members include about 27,000 golf pros, according to the PGA website. While many of these professionals work on the business or management side of golf, many others fit the commonly used “golf pro” label. The PGA’s career designations include “Head Golf Professional,” who gives lessons and supervises golf instruction at a course, driving range or other golf facility. A “Teaching Professional” may give lessons, supervise other instructors or teach their fellow pros how to give lessons, according to the PGA. Golf pros in general also offer advice on equipment, while some will coach scholastic teams on the high school or college level.
A pro golfer earns a living -- or attempts to do so -- by playing in tournaments on one or more of the world’s professional tours. The PGA Tour, in particular, is the best known and most lucrative. The median gross income for a PGA Tour player in 2011, for example, was $628,000. Other well-known golf circuits include the Asian Tour and the Nationwide Tour, the latter of which serves as a stepping stone to the PGA Tour. While large incomes are possible -- Luke Donald made more than $13 million on the PGA and European tours in 2011 -- golfers are responsible for all their travel expenses and typically earn a tournament paycheck only if they make the cut.
Swing coaches typically fall into the category of golf pros, but are generally freelancers or owners of their own facilities, rather than working at a club or driving range. The best swing coaches work with pro golfers, helping refine or even reshape their swings. Butch Harmon, for example, played briefly on the PGA Tour, but made his name as a coach to players such as Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els.
Many golf pros make a living by teaching the game, but also compete in state, local or regional tournaments, often alongside professional tournament golfers. In Michigan, for example, the state’s Women’s Open winner earned $5,500 in 2011, while the Men’s Open champion received $10,000. The Southern California Section of the PGA offers events ranging from the Pro-Assistant Championship, which pays $500 to the winning team, to the California State Open, which paid $15,000 to the winner in 2011.