Niyo: Zack Sucher rides out Tour's wild swings of fortune

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Gambling and golf tend to go hand in hand.

Zack Sucher, 32, received $636,000 for his runner-up finish at the Travelers Championship last weekend.

But in Zack Sucher’s case, you can throw in his foot, his ankle, his knee and his back, too.

Because as he recalls one of the lowest points of his professional golf career, the 32-year-old Sucher can’t help but wince.

“Everything hurt,” he said.

That included his wallet as well. And standing casually on the putting green Tuesday behind the clubhouse at Detroit Golf Club, site of this week’s inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic, Sucher was, in many ways, the perfect poster boy for the myriad challenges PGA Tour players face.

Financial security is the goal out here, but it’s never quite as easy as it looks on television. For many, that security is fleeting, much like the game itself can be. And that reality partly explains the emotions that came pouring out of Sucher this past weekend in Cromwell, Connecticut, wiping away tears following a runner-up finish at the Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands.

It was a result that helped wipe away most of the uncertainty that’d been weighing on him for more than two years now, through injury rehab and months waiting for disability checks and all that idle time at home with his young family and his own self-doubt.

As Sucher put it after a “life-changing” back-nine surge Sunday, “Two months ago we had credit card debt.”

And now?

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“We don't have that anymore,” he said, smiling.

Two days later, after making the 11-hour drive to Detroit on Monday with his wife, Courtney, and their two daughters — 6-year-old Hadley and 2-year-old Claire — he was still shaking his head at the “roller-coaster ride” they took to get here.

“To think about what a low place we were in not that long ago, and now to this,” he said, “it’s ridiculous.”

Then again, so was the fact he was playing golf as well as he was all these years. The shredded ankle that was the source of all his injury problems dates back to his days as a high school basketball standout St. Paul’s Episcopal in Mobile, Alabama. Even through his All-American golf career at Alabama-Birmingham, Sucher’s shaky front foot was an occasional issue, ankle braces notwithstanding.

Injuries mount

But the repetitive stress of pro golf — starting with a year on the Hooters Tour in 2010 — gradually took its toll. And when Sucher finally did earn his PGA Tour card — first for 2015, and then again for 2017 — the practice and the pressure to perform only made things worse, from his ankle to his knee. So after missing 11 of 14 cuts in to start the ’17 season, and figuring out what was required to earn a medical extension for his eligibility, Sucher finally opted for surgery.

Doctors repaired two ligaments in his ankle — "It was a mess," he laughs — and a torn quad tendon in his knee. His foot was in a boot for months, and when he finally got out of it, he tore the plantar fascia in his right foot, “so that was pretty rough.”

The time off allowed him to spend some quality family time at home — a rarity for most touring pros — get some projects done around the house and helped reconnect the Suchers with their church back in Birmingham, Alabama. But not picking up a golf club for 13 months also meant Sucher didn’t pick up a check for seven months, and only then because the Tour’s long-term disability insurance kicked in.

Once it was time to return to practice — Sucher missed the rest of 2017 and all of last season — the clock was ticking louder than ever. He had no status guaranteed beyond this year the developmental Korn Ferry Tour — formerly the Tour — and just a half-dozen starts left on a PGA Tour medical extension to earn his status there, that latter goal looking like a pipe dream. (Sucher needed 347 FedEx Cup points in six starts after earning 88 in 32 previous starts over two years.)

More to the point, though, Sucher and his wife didn’t really have the money to pay for all that. They had their savings and their house, and they discussed taking out a loan or a second mortgage to pay for Sucher’s tour expenses, which can run upwards of $5,000 a week when you factor in travel, lodging, caddie fees and the rest. What they settled on instead was a pair of 12-month interest-free credit cards.

“We just said, ‘We’re gonna bet on ourselves,’” Sucher said. “We decided we were going to put everything on those two credit cards, max ‘em out if we have to, and keep everything we have in the bank so we can cover the bills and stuff we need to at home.”

And then?

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“And then go play good golf,” Sucher said, “and it’ll all take care of itself.”

It didn’t exactly start out that way, however. He traveled to Colombia and Panama in February for Korn Ferry Tour events and came home with a missed cut and a 29th-place check for $4,312. It wasn’t until late April — a handful of satellite tour stops later — that he finally broke through with a fourth-place finish in San Antonio.

“That was a huge weight lifted off,” said Sucher, who then added a second-place finish in Reno three weeks ago to secure his 2020 status on the Korn Ferry Tour.

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But the goal was to get back here to a full-time job on the PGA Tour. And though Sucher was encouraged by his play — finally healthy and free on his front side, he has regained the distance he’d lost in recent years — and a few of his performances, including a solid showing at the AT&T Byron Nelson in May, he was nearly out of time.

He wasn’t even guaranteed a spot in last week’s Travelers, working his way up the alternate list on a sponsor’s exemption and then driving to Connecticut with his family from Springfield, Illinois, where he’d missed the cut in another Korn Ferry event. 

But once there, Sucher played marvelously, opening with rounds of 64-65 and sleeping on the 36-hole lead going into the weekend at River Highlands. Even a disastrous start to the back nine of his Saturday round — going bogey-double-double for a nine-shot swing with eventual champ Chez Reavie — didn’t faze him.

In the money

And as he watched the scoreboard Sunday, while firing a five-under 30 on that same back nine — including a chip-in par on 18 — he knew what it meant. A second-place finish earned him 245 FedEx points, leaving him just 77 shy of his guaranteed status for next year. It also earned him conditional status that’ll allow for at least a few more starts after this week’s stop in Detroit. So more than likely, he'll be a PGA Tour regular again next year.

Oh, and that runner-up check for $636,000? Yep, that was “pretty nice, too,” he said, laughing.

More than anything, it meant his big gamble had paid off.