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ORANGE COUNTY GOLF NOTEBOOK / MARTIN BECK

Sugar Finally Starting to See Some Sweeter Days Ahead

June 03, 1996|MARTIN BECK

Yorba Linda's Mike Sugar took home the biggest check of his professional golf career Saturday, winning the $15,000 first prize at the Queen Mary Open, but today he has to answer to the Internal Revenue Service.

The timing, however, is merely a coincidence. The IRS audit Sugar is facing this morning is primarily about expenses. He reported more than $50,000 worth for 1994 when he was playing on the Nike Tour.

"My expenses were so high," Sugar said, "that they couldn't believe it."

But Sugar assures that he fabricated nothing about his frustrating year on the Nike Tour. He played in 21 events and made only two cuts on the far-flung minor league golf circuit. Costs for airfare, hotel rooms and living expenses mount up when you are trying to make a living playing golf in places such as Gulfport, Boise and Texarkana.

The pickings were grim. His total winnings: $753.

"I've been trying to forget that for two years," Sugar said. "You don't have to remind me. That was a long, tough year."

The experience nearly caused him to give up the dream. It wouldn't have been the first time for him. After playing football and baseball at Esperanza High, Sugar was a starting infielder for four years at UC Irvine. Early in his career at UCI, he considered professional baseball an option, but eventually came to the conclusion he was only an average baseball player.

Golf was barely in the picture. He grew up around Yorba Linda Country Club and played occasionally. Tom Sargent, then the head pro at the club and a renown teacher of junior players, told him he had potential, but Sugar was more interested in football and baseball.

After his baseball career, Sugar turned to golf. He stayed at UCI for a fifth year to play for the Anteater golf team, usually playing fourth or fifth man and then went to work at his father's landscaping business.

But Sugar started getting the itch for competition, especially after finishing second in the amateur division of the 1991 Queen Mary Open, to his brother, Joey, by then a standout Anteater golfer.

So Mike Sugar turned pro in 1992--a friend of his father offered to sponsor him and take care of expenses. He made quick progress, finishing second in 1993 on the money list of the Golden State Tour. Then he did well enough at the PGA Tour qualifying tournament to earn his ill-fated shot on the 1994 Nike Tour.

"After the year on the Nike Tour my confidence was shot," Sugar said. "At one point I was thinking I was pretty close [to making it], then I was thinking I was a mile away."

His poor play and frustration continued in 1995, and by this January he was seriously considering quitting golf for a paying job.

But a friend offered to put him on the payroll of the company he owned to enable Sugar to continue playing and a new teaching professional helped him make a quantum leap with his swing.

And now Sugar is rejuvenated and making progress again.

"This year I feel like I'm getting it back," he said. "And it just all kind of came together this week. It's a good feeling but I hope it's only just a start for me. It's a battle and $15,000 will pay for the tournament this year, that's about it."

*

Sugar's big paycheck was made possible by an outstanding final round Saturday at Lakewood Country Club in Long Beach. He shot 70-68-68 in the first three rounds, and started the final day seven strokes behind the leader, Esteban Toledo of Costa Mesa.

Playing in the group ahead of Toledo, Sugar started slowly. "I was really doing nothing," he said. "I was one-under after six holes, then I birdied five in a row."

Sugar got to eight-under par by making a 20-foot putt for eagle on the par-five 14th and finished with a 64. Toledo made birdie on the 18th to shoot 71 and force a playoff, which Sugar won with a long birdie putt on the second extra hole.

Caddying for Sugar was his brother, Joey, who also is a regular on the Golden State Tour.

"I told people all week that I had by far the best caddie in the field," Mike Sugar said. "He could be out there playing but he's taking time off. It was great having two people to read putts, and he was reading them much better than I was."

*

There's no doubt Orange County's Senior PGA Tour event was more successful this year than it was in its inaugural year in 1995. Announced crowds for the Toshiba Senior Classic at Newport Beach Country Club were more than double those at Mesa Verde Country Club.

Bob Neely, president of International Sports and Event Marketing, which organizes the event, says the three designated charities each will receive $15,000. The inaugural event, managed by the now bankrupt Orange County Sports Assn., lost money.

Neely said he is arranging a luncheon this week to present checks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Orange County, the National Dyslexia Research Foundation and the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Assn.

The golf programs at UC Irvine and Orange Coast College have each received $5,000 donations, Neely said.

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