Petoskey's Joey Garber weathers 'dark days,' earns PGA Tour card

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Petoskey native Joey Garber is preparing for his first season on the PGA Tour.

It was in late May, and Joey Garber had just arrived in Raleigh, N.C., for yet another golf tournament, his fourth in as many weeks.

He hadn't been playing particularly well, making just three cuts in his previous six starts, and earning barely $6,000, total, in the other three, with well-down-the-leaderboard finishes.

Before that next tournament began, Garber found himself tooling around at his buddy Ben Kohles' place. Garber was staying there for the week, commonplace for the golf grinders still searching for that big break — any way to save on hotel fares, you do it.

Anyway, one day, he casually picked up one of Kohles' putters. It was a Titleist Scotty Cameron, and for whatever reason, it felt good. So Garber borrowed it for the week. Let's just say, he's still "borrowing" it.

"It felt awesome, and sometimes, it's one of those funny things you need. I kind of made everything all week," said Garber, a Petoskey native, who went on to win that week's Tour's REX Hospital Open and the $117,000 paycheck that came with it.

"He's been trying to get me to pay him for that putter for a while now."

That victory vaulted Garber up the money list on the Tour, the PGA Tour's feeder circuit. And with a few more cashes to close out the regular season, Garber finished in the top 25.

On Sunday, in suburban Portland, Ore., he was officially presented his PGA Tour card for the 2018-19 season. He will join Jackson's Brian Stuard, an Oakland alum, as the two members of the Michigan delegation on the PGA Tour. 

It's quite the jump for Garber, who spent one season at Michigan before transferring to Georgia. He graduated in 2014, and has since struggled to gain status on any tour. This was his first year on the Tour, in five tries at qualifying school. 

Before this season, his career earnings on three major tours totaled $21,561.

"It was really hard, obviously," Garber said Tuesday morning, after walking through airport security in Chicago, on his way to Columbus, Ohio, for the start of the Tour playoffs. "There's another aspect to golf. You're always kind of on your own, there's a lot of down time, a lot of hotel rooms, a lot of flights, so there's a lot of times where you're not making any money, you're not playing good, and you're doubting what you're doing.

"I'm lucky to have a great support staff, family, friends. ... Even if I wanted to get down, they wouldn't let me.

"There has definitely been some dark times, but I never thought about giving up."

Joey Garber, 26, is just wrapping up his first full season on the Tour. He had one victory and finished 19th on the money list, heading into this week's start of the playoffs.

'No hard feelings'

Child prodigies tend to have smooth times finding success in their career of calling, but golf can be oh so different.

Garber grew up around the game, from that day when he was 3, and his parents dropped him off at Boyne Highlands, with only a putter. He's been hooked ever since, rising quickly up the Michigan junior ranks. He was Mr. Golf for Michigan his junior and senior years at Petoskey High School, before heading to Michigan, where he played in all 14 tournaments, posting six top-20s, four top-10s and two top-fives. Garber tied for fourth at the NCAA regional, helping the Wolverines to their first-ever regional championship. His 74.08 scoring average was third-best for a freshman in program history.

But after the season, the coach that recruited him, Andrew Sapp, was leaving for the University of North Carolina, and he wanted Garber to come with him.

Garber pondered it — but while doing so, he also looked at some other schools. He found Georgia, and he knew he found his new home. He transferred there after just one season, 2010-11, at Michigan.

"I just felt like, if I wanted to do this for a living, I had to give myself every opportunity to get better," Garber said. "It was seeming like Michigan wasn't really the spot for me to do that. I love the University of Michigan. I still think it's the greatest university in the world. I've got countless friends that I still keep in touch with there, I still talk to the golf coach. There are no hard feelings."

Michigan head coach Chris Whitten, an assistant under Sapp, confirmed that.

They talked earlier this week, after Garber got his PGA Tour card.

"Joey was just looking for a different environment to continue his career," Whitten said. "We still have a good relationship. I'm really happy for him and all of his success this year."

Georgia has long served as a pipeline to the PGA Tour, with such notable alums as Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed, Brian Harman, Russell Henley, Chris Kirk and Harris English, all of whom are in the FedEx Cup playoffs that start this week.

There's also the weather, which Garber admitted was a deciding factor in leaving Michigan.

"Can you get better and do the things you do do in Michigan? Yes," he said. "But it's gonna be easier on you if you're somewhere where you can play golf every day. That was definitely a big part of it, getting out of the Michigan winters."

The move worked. Garber had a decorated career at Georgia, even rising to the No. 1-ranked collegiate golfer in the country during his senior season, 2014, the same season in which he set the program's scoring record (70.69).

Shortly after graduating, he qualified for the PGA Tour's Travelers Championship just outside Hartford, Conn. And he seemed to be well on his way. But he missed the cut that week. That was his only PGA Tour start that year. He didn't have any the next year. He made four in 2016, making two cuts. And he made one last year, at The Honda Classic, where he flirted with the lead early after a first-round 67, but then ballooned in the second round and missed the cut.

In that same span, he played in six events, making one cut, and in 2015, he spent a summer in Canada on what now is the Mackenzie Tour. He played in 10 tournaments, and made four cuts and $3,161.

"You know, I had no status anywhere," said Garber, 26. "I knew it was there. I knew I needed to get some status somewhere, get me a full season, and give myself a realistic try at it. As soon as I got my status this year, I felt more comfortable. I felt like everything would fall into place.

"And, you know, it just so happened to. It's just validating what I already knew — I believed in myself. Golf is all about belief and confidence."

Joey Garber played one season at Michigan before transferring to Georgia.

'The perfect storm'

Last December, Garber finally qualified for Tour status, a much-bigger prize than the $6,750 (pre-tax) check that came with it.

And after missing the cut in his first two events of the season, he reeled off four consecutive made cuts — including a pair of eighth-place finishes.

Then, in June, at the TPC Wakefield Plantation course in Raleigh — a course that suited his eye from the moment he laid eyes on it, particularly with its wide fairways (driving accuracy has been an issue) — he got his big break. Rounds of 66, 65, 69 and 66 were good enough for a one-shot victory, all but securing him even more status for next season, and on a much bigger stage.

The "borrowed" putter (which remains in his travel bag, though he doesn't always use it) helped, as did playing with good friend Michael Johnson in the final two rounds. That helped calm him down.

"It was just kind of the perfect storm," Garber said.

Garber missed the cut last week at the Portland Open, but he stuck around for a bigger prize.

After Sunday's round had ended, Dan Glod, Tour president, and David Brown, president of the Group, handed out the 25 coveted PGA Tour cards, in the order they finished on the money list. Garber was the 19th name called.

"You do pictures and you have a glass of champagne," said Garber, admitting he might not have stopped at just one.

Garber still gets back to Michigan, when he can. Usually that means one week in the summer — not nearly enough, he says ("I miss it so much; there's nowhere better than Northern Michigan right now") — and usually for Christmas.

He's still a big Detroit sports fan, particularly of the four major pro teams.

And, yes, he still loves the University of Michigan. "Go Blue" even is on his Twitter account, which, by the way, is due for an update: PGA Tour player.

"It was pretty special," Garber, who now resides in the golf mecca that is St. Simons, Island, Ga., said of that weekend celebration. It hadn't really sunk in, probably, until yesterday (Monday). Yeah, it was super cool. I had a bunch of close buddies who also finished in the top 25.

"It was just cool to experience it with everyone unfortunately, no family, but it was nice to have a bunch of friends around.

"And we celebrated accordingly. It was a successful night."