Jay McNair never had the money to attend the PGA Tour's qualifying tournament, never had any sponsorship dollars to count on. He played golf wherever he could find a game, no matter the stakes, no matter the payday. McNair just wanted to tee it up.
Eventually, the truth hit home, and McNair, an aspiring pro, had to get a job. Now 29, McNair is a fifth-grade math teacher at Oak Park Academy in Tampa, and finds time for golf whenever his schedule permits.
But like a lot of golf enthusiasts, McNair was intrigued by the Golf Channel's reality show, the Big Break, which aired for most of last fall.
When the 24-hour golf network announced it would do a similar show this year, McNair, at the urging of his girlfriend, decided to apply as one of the 10 contestants.
It wasn't easy, but McNair snagged a spot and will be featured in the 11-week Big Break II that begins at 9 Tuesday night. Starting with the second show, one player will be eliminated each week until one remains.
That golfer will be awarded his big break: four sponsor exemptions in 2005 on the Nationwide Tour, the developmental circuit for the PGA Tour. The winner also gets other perks, including a 2005 luxury sedan, along with insurance and financial services that include $10,000 in cash.
McNair, who lives in Valrico, took part in the taping of the show this summer in Las Vegas. As with all of those who participated, he was sworn to secrecy. But just getting there was a story in itself.
"I went down to Miami for an audition. They had it at Doral," McNair said. "I hit balls for about two hours, then during the audition, they give you 10 shots. Three wedge shots, three driver shots, three 5-irons and you have to hit a flop shot.
"Out of those 10 shots, I probably hit five of them good. I was nervous. I really thought I blew it. After that, they do about a 15-minute interview on camera and I figured I was done. But they then told me they watched me for those two hours hitting balls and it wasn't just about those 10 shots."
Six weeks later, McNair received a call from producers who said he was among four vying for the final spot. Through a promotion on the network, viewers voted for the final participant. And they chose McNair.
Last year, the Big Break was one of the Golf Channel's most popular shows, according to Bob Greenway, senior vice president of programming and production.
"We struck a chord with the Big Break by taking a unique slant on the reality genre that has become extremely popular across the television landscape," he said.
The 10 contestants were chosen from more than 5,000 applicants from across the country. All play to a 1-handicap or better. Among those McNair competed against were the owner and operator of a bowling alley in Canada, a student from California, a PGA Tour caddie from Orlando, a marketing representative from Georgia, a school supply salesman from Michigan, a retired fighter pilot from Melbourne and a minitour pro from Illinois.
McNair grew up in Tampa, playing most of his golf at Rogers Park. He earned a scholarship to Florida A&M in Tallahassee, and turned pro after college, traveling the Southeast looking for minor tournaments. He also worked as an assistant pro at a public course in Tallahassee.
"I really play golf because I love the sport," he said. "All my money went to playing golf. I never had a lot. A golfer's money knows no home. I was always trying to do different things, playing tournaments wherever I could find them. But I never had the money to go beyond that."
The Big Break II was shot at four courses in Las Vegas. Contestants were housed together at a hotel near the Las Vegas strip, and when they weren't on the course, cameras followed them.
The golf features various challenges that seek to simulate shots players face on tour. Each week there is an elimination round in which the poorest performer is sent home.
McNair said the series was shot over nine days. "And it was a full day, up early every day and going to bed late," he said.
"There was a lot of pressure, but the thing about the Big Break is it doesn't really pinpoint the best golf. In golf, par is your friend. Here, you don't have par as your friend. You either hit the shot or you don't. Score doesn't count. That's pressure. It's one shot or you're dead. And with the elimination-type things, the pressure can fall at different times. It's luck of the draw."
It doesn't sound like McNair emerged as the winner. But he's not saying. You have to watch to find out.
HEIGHT: 6 feet 5
OCCUPATION: Elementary school teacher
HOME COURSE: Rogers Park, Tampa
BIG BREAK NICKNAME: V.C. or Viewer's Choice
ON TV: The Golf Channel's reality show, Big Break II, starts this season at 9 Tuesday night.