John Mallinger was competing in the Korn Ferry Tour’s Ellie Mae Classic at TPC Stonebrae on Aug. 3, 2017, when he couldn’t resist checking his phone.
It was the middle of a competitive round, but there it was, a text from the CEO of Travis Mathew confirming that the apparel company he co-founded had been sold to Callaway Golf for the princely sum of $125.5 million. Mallinger read the rest of the message, which said, “Come meet us in Lake Tahoe. We’re going to celebrate!” Without giving it a second thought Mallinger did something he’d never done before: he withdrew on the spot claiming a sore back.
Mallinger, who competed in 187 PGA Tour events, recording a pair of seconds and winning nearly $7 million in earnings, essentially retired from professional golf that day. (He did play in the Korn Ferry Tour’s BMW Pro-Am in 2018 and 2019 and made one PGA Tour start at the 2018 Farmers Insurance Open, and has played in the unofficial Pebble Beach Invitational, which he won in 2010.) In the ensuing five years since striking it rich, Mallinger, 43, has passed the time coaching his two sons in baseball and enjoying a regular golf game at his club, but what he’s most proud of is The Give, a charity golf tournament being held for the fourth time on Monday, which has allowed him to give back in ways he never imagined when he was scratching out a living on golf’s mini tours.
Mallinger grew up in San Diego, where he learned to play golf thanks to his older brother, Joe. In 1997, he joined the Long Beach State men’s golf team, which practiced at Virginia Country Club, an A.W. Tillinghast and William P. Bell design that has stood the test of time.
Mallinger turned pro in 2000, and quickly burned through the money his parents gave him to chase his dream of playing professionally. Mallinger said he was on the verge of quitting, but then Jamie Mulligan, Virginia’s pro and the 2021 PGA of America Teacher and Coach of the Year, breathed new life into Mallinger’s playing career.
“We had one good week together,” Mallinger recalled. “I played the Long Beach Open and finished second. I won $15,000. I thought I was rich. He definitely kick-started my career. Because of him and Virginia, they let me practice and play and do whatever I needed to do to get better.”
Another “life changer” for Mallinger was meeting John Kruger, who was looking for a partner to sponsor in the 2003 Big Stakes Match Play in Las Vegas. Mallinger had no status at the time, one of the criteria to enter the 64 teams of two golfers, who each put up $100,000 and played a four-ball match-play single-elimination tournament. Mallinger and his partner advanced far enough to break even, and he said his share felt like a fortune. More importantly, Kruger came away impressed with Mallinger’s game and offered to sponsor him.
“I didn’t have to pay anything back. He just wanted me to go and do Monday qualifiers,” Mallinger said.
That plan worked to perfection as he ended up getting through in nine out of 11 Mondays on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour, earning the nickname “Monday Mally” as well as conditional status. Along the way, he played on seven different tours in 2006: the Canadian Tour, the Golden State Tour, the Tarheel Tour, the Nationwide Tour, the PGA Tour, the Adams Tour and the Hooters Tour. He earned his PGA Tour card at Q-School with Kruger in his gallery.
“Nothing would have happened without this guy inspiring confidence in me and his financial backing,” Mallinger said. “He kind of gave me a free pass and it was life-changing. Once I got on Tour, he said, ‘Well, you know, you’re financially good now. I want to do something different.’ He kind of just asked me like, ‘Is there anybody else that you can think of that I could sponsor in the same situation,” and I was like, ‘Well, my roommate Travis Johnson is done playing golf but he wants to start a clothing brand, where you wear a golf shirt to the golf course and then go to a bar.”
Kruger was intrigued enough to meet with Mallinger and Johnson, who played golf at UCLA, at a Claim Jumper restaurant in Long Beach. Johnson sketched out his concept on a napkin for a golf apparel company that would change business casual forever. Kruger became the original investor in Travis Mathew – the latter being Johnson’s middle name – and Mallinger, who was 27 and single, ponied up what he said amounted to a third of what he had to his name.
“I never bet that much again,” he said.
Mallinger finished runner-up to Brandt Snedeker for PGA Tour Rookie of the year honors in 2007, and early on was the face of Travis Mathew, recruiting other pros to wear the brand.
“Over the 10 years, I think we had 23 wins, which was pretty phenomenal for us and obviously having Bubba Watson win the (2012) Masters was huge,” he said.
The success of Travis Mathew and the sale to Callaway has allowed Mallinger to enjoy a second act in life.
“I did the PGA Tour grind, the third week in a row on the road and now I get to do this side of life,” he said. “I completely miss golf but at the same time I don’t because I know what it takes to get to that top level and there’s a lot of selfishness that comes with that.
“Everyone says what are you trying to do now? I’m not trying to do anything. I’m trying to enhance everything I have. I get to coach my two boys a lot. Would I like to have Charles Howell III career? Yes, he’s made $35 million but I don’t think he gets to do a lot of things I get to do. Sure, he gets to do things on the golf course that I can’t do but I did experience that. Everyone is like go back and play, and I may try the Senior Tour someday, but I say, ‘Guys, it’s not like that. It takes so much, especially given my talent level was low. I played on mental strength, I’d say.’”
When someone retires at Mallinger’s age, the question is what’s next? In addition to focusing on raising his sons with his wife, he wondered, “How can I give back?” He decided to devote a sizable portion of his retirement to doing just that. He created the John Mallinger Foundation and a golf tournament fittingly enough at Virginia Country Club, where he’s now a full-fledged member and has a regular group that he plays with twice a week.
In the first three years, it has brought together the likes of Max Homa, Patrick Cantlay and Joel Dahmen. Several of the pros expected to play Monday such as Charley Hoffman, will jet over from Phoenix and give their time for a good cause before teeing it up at Riviera. Old pals such as Peter Tomasulo, Matt Every and Bill Lund will be there too along with celebs such Oliver Hudson and tennis star Mardy Fish. There’s a closest-to-the-pin shootout that is more of a comedy act with Mulligan as emcee and presents a chance for Mallinger to be roasted by his pals.
It’s a low-key party with live music, great eats – Cantlay suggests trying the carne asada tacos on the course – and Travis Mathew gear among the goodies for participants. Last year, the tournament surpassed $1 million in charitable giving.
“We want to use golf as a platform and bring everything back to Long Beach,” said Mallinger.
That includes funding Southern California junior golf, all the men’s and women’s high school golf teams in Long Beach, and contributing to the SCPGA Foundation, which helped fund 10 scholarships. Mallinger hopes to create a scholarship at his alma mater, Long Beach State, and envisions a day when one of the participants playing high school golf will earn the scholarship to his alma mater.
Mallinger has experienced the best of both worlds, and it’s not a bad life when you can give back at The Give.