June 15, 2024

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The Reality of Turning Pro: George Cunningham’s journey as a dad and with dad

13 min read
The Reality of Turning Pro: George Cunningham’s journey as a dad and with dad

The family RV was rumbling into a new town.

It’s April 2021, and this was the Cunninghams’ fifth stop in a stretch that saw them play 11 events in 12 weeks, when they’d decamp in outposts like Broussard, Louisiana, Huntsville, Alabama, and Knoxville, Tennessee. Normally, they’d meticulously map out every aspect of motorhome life at the beginning of the year, from the routes to rest stops to parks. But, somehow, they’d gotten off course amid a three-day deluge. Now, it was 11 p.m., and they were tired, and a morning pro-am beckoned. They guided the 42-footer into the lot, hooked up and killed the lights.

When they awoke: panic. The 60,000-pound rig was sunken in mud, about a foot and a half deep, nearly up to the frame. Pressed for time, the patriarch of the family did the most sensible thing under the circumstances.

He gripped the wheel and floored it, hoping for the best.

The sloppy scene might seem an apt metaphor for the entire Korn Ferry Tour experience: in a rut, slamming on the accelerator, yet going nowhere fast. But George Cunningham, 26, was unfazed, because over the years he has been bogged down in worse. Family drama. Surgery, injury, apathy. A months-long slump. And so, a few misadventures as an unglamorous touring professional? Shrug.

“There’s been some points where it would have been easy for him to say that’s enough and hang it up,” says Jim Anderson, Cunningham’s former college coach at Arizona. “But that’s not him. It doesn’t matter what other troubles he finds, because he’s going to be able to find his way through like he always has.”

Riding shotgun – or in this case, behind the wheel – for the tumultuous journey has been Cunningham’s father, Tracy, who has played every conceivable role: caddie, swing whisperer, shrink, chauffeur, financier, travel companion, roommate, pickleball opponent, scuba diving partner. Together, they’ve overcome so many challenges that earning a PGA Tour card … well, it seems simple by comparison.

LONG BEFORE HIS RIG bottomed out, Cunningham’s super-season on the Korn Ferry Tour was already plenty unusual. Like all the other dreamers, his was a massive body of work: 44 events in 20 months. Some weeks, he was sidetracked chasing distance. Others, he was undone by bouts of negativity. And a special few, yeah, he hunted flags and chased titles, flashing the potential that’ll eventually land him on the big tour. “When I was playing good, it was very good,” he says, “and that’s encouraging.”

Though he missed more cuts (26) than he made (16), Cunningham seized opportunities when they arose, and those occasional flourishes were enough to land him at No. 58 in the points standings – easily keeping his card for 2022 but not seriously close to a promotion. Making that final leap will be about trusting the talent that got him there – and the man that he’s become.

After all, Cunningham’s path once seemed linear. In the high school class of 2014, he was the No. 2-ranked recruit in the country – behind only Scottie Scheffler – but learned shortly before his freshman year started that he was about to become a father. While his Arizona teammates adjusted to their newfound freedom, Cunningham contemplated an unplanned future. His relationships frayed, leading to a breakup and a few rocky years without seeing his new daughter, Charlotte, who was born in January 2015, midway through his freshman year. Angry in the aftermath, Cunningham poured himself into his golf, earning All-Pac-12 honors but growing increasingly isolated.

“A humbling experience, and it gave me a lot of perspective,” he says now. “It made me a little more mature than a lot of people my age, because I had to be.”

Eventually, the tense family dynamics took a toll on his game. With golf no longer an escape, his motivation waned. Then his body betrayed him. Plagued by a back injury, he had another health scare in 2017 when a physical revealed atrial tachycardia, a condition that caused his resting heart rate to beat nearly twice as fast, putting an immense strain on his body. Had the issue not been caught early, doctors said he wouldn’t have seen his 40th birthday.

“Everything in my life was going very, very poorly,” George says.

Adds Tracy, “It seemed like every rock he was turning over was a black hole he was falling into. College was the darkest period of our lives.”

Finally, George had enough. Warming up on the range ahead of the 2017 North/South Amateur, he defeatedly turned to his father and said, “I don’t think I want to do this anymore.” He withdrew from the tournament and put away his clubs, perhaps, he thought, for good.

“We had to figure out a new life, because golf was life at that point,” Tracy says, “and golf was done.”

Throughout the travails no one would have blamed Anderson for dumping Cunningham from the Arizona roster – least of all his parents. “If I was the head coach, I would have gotten rid of him,” Tracy says. “I wouldn’t have wanted that cancer around.” But Anderson said it was never even a consideration. Not just because Cunningham was the team’s No. 1 player. Not just because they needed him to contend, for his score counted every round he played for the Wildcats. But because: “The relationship we had was built on trust,” Anderson says, “and I tried my best to support him. We were patient with him.”

Buoyed by those closest to him (and after working out a custody agreement), Cunningham’s outlook steadily improved. During his standout senior year, he won his first tournament as an individual and qualified for the NCAA Championship – a fitting end to a tempestuous college career, with Cunningham walking side by side with the coach who never abandoned him.

“They weren’t best friends, but what Jim Anderson did for my son …,” Tracy says, pausing as the emotion rose. “Yeah, he didn’t push him. He let him get through those hard times. He stuck with him, let him grow. The program he was in, it couldn’t have been better for him.”

WHAT CAME NEXT WAS the fulfillment of all that promise. In his third pro start – and on Father’s Day, no less – Cunningham romped to a win on the Mackenzie Tour. To celebrate, he took his parents out for pizza, and then did a double take when the $28,000 check landed in his account. Jump-starting his career, he claimed the No. 2 spot on the money list and locked up status the following year on the Korn Ferry Tour. Watching his former star thrive immediately after school, Anderson says, “I felt great pride and admiration for him, because that’s what it takes to make it. You’ve gotta persevere.”

At last, the Cunningham clan had hit their stride. George had his father on the bag, just like on the amateur circuit, only it was different now. Years earlier, they fussed so often during rounds that Tracy worried their relationship would get irreparably damaged, that they’d grow to hate each other. “It’s not worth it to go on like this,” he said. And so they worked at it, like fathers and sons do, and like players and caddies do, too. First in Canada and then on the Korn Ferry Tour, they created an open line of communication. They didn’t explode at each other over miscalculations. George offered his opinion first, then Tracy chimed in, and off they went, committed in their process. Tracy, 51, who also owns a financial company in Dallas, had adroitly learned how to flip from dad to caddie mode, then transition back seamlessly after the round, all while being compensated like a regular looper. Says George, “It took a lot of work to get where we are now.”

George Cunningham

George Cunningham

It’s a good thing their relationship has proven so resilient, because on tour they can’t escape each other. RVing has been a way of life for the Cunninghams since George and his brother, Henry, were young, when they’d pack up to go dirt biking or paintballing in the Colorado mountains. Desperate for more golf in the brutal winter months, they’d bolt for the warmer climes of Arizona and live out of the RV. Their current ride, a 2006 Country Coach Magna, purchased before the start of the 2019 Korn Ferry season, is basically a traveling condo: 42 feet long and expanding to about 700 square feet, which provides enough room for two separate sleeping areas (including a queen mattress with a foam topper for George), a 55-inch TV, residential refrigerator, two recliners and a sofa, and, yes, apparently enough horsepower to escape a foot of mud.

When the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a different tournament experience in summer 2020, the Cunninghams likely had the smoothest adjustment. They’d already formed their own bubble anyway, quarantining themselves as they traveled from city to city, cooking their own meals by themselves, relaxing together in the RV park after rounds. Says Tracy, “George had it better than 99{cf07cd047201b183b19c0b335dbd7d35a498f84568531c8abe8643bd3ccfd494} of the guys out there.”

But the RV wasn’t just a practical mode of transportation during a pandemic. It was a cost-saving measure on a tour full of penny-pinchers. Sure, the rig requires expensive repairs and maintenance, and only getting six miles to the gallon on a 120-gallon tank with the highest gas prices in a decade will add up. But still: Cunningham figures that most players plan on about $70,000 in expenses each year, and he’s saving roughly $30,000 by mostly eschewing planes and hotels.

Not wanting the added stress, George delegates the accounting to his mother, Julie. She tracks the family’s travel itineraries in spiral notebooks, on each page jotting down all of the pertinent information: George’s KFT rank entering the event, addresses for the RV park or hotel, flight details and rental-car confirmation numbers. In the bottom-right corner she’ll total the expenses for the week and subtract that figure from the money earned – hopefully with a cute addendum, “to the good,” signifying a made cut.

“I don’t think he even knows how much he has in his bank account,” Tracy says. “Probably for the best.”

Those savings come in handy for a player who has been notoriously streaky throughout his young career. In the summer of 2019, after a months-long stretch of steady play, he closed out his year with nine missed cuts in his last 11 starts. His season-long earnings: $72,820, or about what he said it costs to break even.

The Korn Ferry Tour super-season was even more unforgiving. Opening his year with a tie for fourth in the Bahamas, he followed it up by missing 14 of his next 15 cuts, a stretch that was prolonged by the pandemic.

After missed cuts, player and caddie typically go in separate directions, then meet up at the next event refreshed and reset. Not the Cunninghams. They returned to the RV, plugged in the directions and hit the road – comforted they weren’t toiling alone but mostly miserable being together.

“Those drives were absolutely brutal,” Tracy says. “We couldn’t get away from our nightmare. It was traveling with us daily.”

In July 2020, in the midst of all those missed cuts, Cunningham stepped to the 18th tee of the Price Cutter Charity Championship believing he needed birdie to at long last play a weekend. Here it was, the most pressure he’d felt in months, and he executed what he thought was a perfect shot into the closing par 5: a soaring approach that landed on the green but trundled over the back, into the weeds, the kind of crummy break only the slumping golfer receives. Needing to get up and down to post 3 under, he hacked out of the tall stuff to 20 feet.

“I gotta make this,” George whispered to his dad, eyeing the read.

“Yeah, I’d make it if I were you,” Tracy replied.

The putt dropped, and there in the middle of the summer, well off the pace at a developmental tour event, Cunningham fist-pumped and made a scene, screaming, “YEAH!!!” as if he’d just won the Masters.

Relieved, George high-fived his dad: “I did it! I did it!” He floated to the scoring area, grinning as he signed his card.

But the celebration was short-lived.

“Buddy …,” Tracy said, once the euphoria had worn off, “I think the cut is going to 4 under.”

“Dad, don’t say that …”


“Hey … at least you made the putt?”

They missed by one. Another lost week. The RV rolled on.

SO, WHAT WAS THE root of all these troubles?

Father and son, caddie and player, talked over lunch one day about how they might be the two most negative people on tour. And George rationalized that, subconsciously, he was easing up after a strong result rather than pushing forward. That all played a role, no doubt, but that wasn’t it, not entirely. Only recently did they realize it was this: Cunningham had fallen into the speed trap. He was chasing distance, to his own detriment, and he was so deep in the process he couldn’t find his way out.

The origins of his insecurity could be traced back more than a decade earlier. In his early teens, Cunningham was one of the longest hitters in the country. Stupid long. So long that it gave him an immense advantage – basically, the Bryson DeChambeau of the junior circuit – and he cherished the attention it gave him. But Cunningham’s distance came from his size, not because of some preternatural speed or a quirky swing mechanic. He was bigger than everybody else, and then he stopped growing. By the time he qualified for the 2010 U.S. Amateur, he strained to keep up and knew he needed more pop. No matter his success, he arrived at the same conclusion when he teed it up in his first few Mackenzie Tour events … and when he played his first season on the Korn Ferry Tour … and when he made his PGA Tour debut: Courses are easier with a 300-yard carry.

So Cunningham tinkered with his swing, betraying his fairways-and-greens DNA in pursuit of more clubhead speed. Season-long stats show that he actually lost distance – a 292.7-yard average in 2020-21, down from 298.5 yards the season prior – but that doesn’t tell the whole story. He was longer, no question, about 20 to 25 yards some weeks. But the strike was so inconsistent, his swing so unreliable, his mind so preoccupied, that whatever gains he achieved were quickly negated. “George decided that he wanted to get on the Bryson wagon, and that about cost him his card,” says Tracy, George’s primary swing coach since he was young. “I can definitively say that that has not worked for my son. We tried. We gave it our all. But that doesn’t fit the way his brain works.”

This was a recent revelation, just a month ago, after the Korn Ferry Tour season ended and Cunningham ranked 58th on the points standings on the strength of three top-5s. He was hammering away in his family’s home simulator, cranking up the speed but failing to produce any eye-popping numbers. Finally, Tracy said, “I’m so sick of working on speed that I could vomit, dude.”

They talked through it, pored over the data, examined the trends. Then, an epiphany: Over the years George had played his best golf not on wide-open layouts that rewarded length, but rather thinker’s tracks that put a premium on accuracy and precision.

“I’m done,” George said. “I’m never thinking about speed again.”

And so this offseason, father and son, caddie and player, are going back to the basics. To playing the type of golf that first got George to the precipice of the Tour.

“I think it’s going to be an unbelievable year,” Tracy says. “We’re going to focus so hard on being the best version of himself. Just be who you are – and embrace it.”

LIFE ON THE KORN Ferry Tour is about learning. How to handle the rigors of a full schedule and life on the road. How to win. How to best prepare for the next level.

Cunningham is 26, an unfinished product, but he now feels properly seasoned. Since turning pro in 2018 he has learned – and reaffirmed – that he wants his dad on the bag, not just for his friendship but also his fighting spirit. He has learned that he might as well live with his parents in Dallas, because paying a mortgage, in this market, while traveling nine months a year, is a needless expense. He has learned that a vegan diet helps his body operate at its highest capacity. He has learned that playing to his strengths is not a weakness.

And he also has learned that it’s not easy being a single father, but that it’s more rewarding than he ever could have imagined. The early drama that surrounded his introduction to parenthood has long faded; he and his daughter’s mother now work in tandem to provide the best possible upbringing for Charlotte, who turns 7 next month and is about to test into the gifted-and-talented program at her school. During the dog days of summer, when the pursuit of a tour card is at its most intense, she’ll head on the road with him for an extended vacation. Nine holes is about all she can handle, and then Julie takes her granddaughter somewhere with a bit more excitement: aquariums, parks, pools, museums. By sunset, they’re back in the RV, oblivious and unbothered by whether dad shot 67 or 77. From the cushy passenger seat Charlotte might be blissfully unaware of the stresses, and of all that her family has overcome, but she’s starting to grasp the alluring lifestyle.

It was just another afternoon in Springfield, Illinois, a small moment in a super-season full of them, but that day she noticed a couple of kids not much older than her running toward her father to ask for an autograph. It didn’t compute, not yet anyway.

“But … who would want something from him?” she asked bewilderedly, and the whole group laughed.

Little did she realize that was her dad at work, trying like hell to become somebody.

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