Mike Sweeney doesn’t have a place to call home. He doesn't have a car either, although he has spent more than his fair share in one. For months he slept in his 2014 Hyundai Elantra, the front seat fully reclined, parked outside a WalMart. All to chase his dream of playing pro golf. On Monday he qualified for the Korn Ferry event in Alabama in spectacular fashion, holing a 35-yard bunker shot on the 18th hole just to sneak into a five-for-two playoff.
Sweeney grew up in Enfield, Conn., about 25 miles north of Hartford. His dad introduced him to the game, and they played most of their golf at Grassmere Country Club, a nine-hole public course. His golf game steadily improved, and he was an all-state selection as a senior. ("I mean, it's Connecticut,” he says. “Not that big a deal.") But he never caught the attention of any college coaches. After graduation, he tried the local community college, but "it wasn't for me." He quit after one less-than-stellar semester.
He took a job at a bowling alley and later added a second job at a small equestrian club. Asked what he did there, he replied, "You know, cut the grass, shoveled shit, cleaned the horses." At the bowling alley, he would clean the place and work the counter before drilling holes and working in the pro shop. In the spring, he would put away the bowling ball (he was an accomplished bowler with seven perfect games) and pick up the golf clubs again. He said he improved but not enough to play any events outside of a few small amateur events. This was his routine for more than four years. Bowling. Horses. Golf. He split time living with his mother and father, who had divorced when he was a teenager.
He also took up rapping under the stage name MikeyD860. He and another rapper named MackleMusic860 have multiple songs on Spotify. Now he says he only raps once a year when he is back home in Connecticut.
When his dad moved with his girlfriend to Port St. Lucie, Fla., in 2018, he made Sweeney an offer. He could relocate with the couple, with the understanding he had to move out when he turned 25. He was 23 at the time. He agreed and then inexplicably decided to turn pro, even though, by his own admission, he was "fucking terrible." His scores on the Minor League Tour, a small circuit in South Florida, reflected as much. In his first two years on the tour, he broke 70 just once, and in almost three years of grinding, he cashed only five checks. He remembers his first payday, a T-5 after shooting a 72 in a one-day event. The check was for $33.34.
To fund his expensive pursuit, he worked at a Subway inside a Shell station. He worked three or four days a week, putting all of that money toward entry fees. When he failed to cash, he would start all over the following week. Asked if he was promoted during his year and a half at Subway, he said, "Nope, strictly a sandwich artist."
In the summer of 2021, Sweeney took a position as an assistant pro at a club in New York, and when the season ended, he headed back to Florida to live with his dad and play competitively. One problem: Sweeney was 25 now, and he knew the deal he had agreed to. "I could spend all my money on an apartment or play pro golf," he says. So the Elantra became his home. He was working in the cart barn at The Florida Club (which he still is, he thinks, after he called the club on Monday to let his bosses know he needed the week off). Each morning started with a stop at his dad's apartment complex, where unbeknownst to his father, he still had access to the gym. He used the shower there. Then it was off to the club for work and practice. After work, he returned to the gym for another shower before heading to the Walmart lot.
There he would recline his driver's seat as far as possible, climb into his tattered sleeping bag, grab his pillow and try to grab some sleep. He tried to get up "before people showed up." He did this for months before a friend took him in. He has been couch-surfing for most of the last year or so. The Elantra “is not in good shape” and not running. “I need a new car.” What struck me was Sweeney said none of this with any desperation or concern. Just that this was the way it was. It was so refreshing.
Sweeney played in another one-day Minor League Tour event in January 2022. It was his 30th career start on that tour, and his career earnings were barely over $1,000. The Abacoa January Classic is played at Abacoa Golf Club, a frequent host of Minor League events, and Sweeney shot a bogey-free 65, winning by two over Hayden Buckley, now in his second season on the PGA Tour. Sweeney doubled his career earnings with the $1,200 paycheck. The week was a monumental turning point, as he now owns five MLGT wins.
This week Sweeney again spent most of his savings to pay the $500 entry fee for Korn Ferry Monday at the Huntsville Open. He drove up from Florida with another pro. This was Sweeney's 12th Monday qualifier between the PGA and KFT tours, but he had never made it through. He came to the par-4 18th hole at Huntsville Country Club at 5 under par and thought he needed at least a birdie. Most players lay up on the 366-yard dogleg-right, but Sweeney figured he needed to be aggressive, so he hit a big slice around the corner. His ball ended up in the front bunker about 35 yards short of the green. Thinking he had to get up and down, Sweeney did one better, holing the shot for an eagle. Come to find out, he needed to make that deuce.
The 65 earned him a spot in the playoff, and he advanced with a par on the second hole. On Thursday, Sweeney will tee it up in his first event on any of the tours under the PGA Tour umbrella.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that money for the rest of the week is tight. Sweeney has almost reached the $800 limit on his credit card, so he can't book a rental car. As of Monday night he still wasn’t sure how he was going to get around for the week. His dad paid for his hotel room, which has the kind of amenities you’d expect for a place with a weekly rate of $500. The Google reviews are littered with complaints of bed bugs, customers being charged for nights they didn’t stay there and drug dealers and sex workers frequenting the parking lot.
And yet there is no place Mike Sweeney would rather be.