2003: Perspective - A tale of two tours

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The PGA Tour could learn a lot from the PGA European Tour about nurturing young talent. Up-and-coming European stars are given more opportunity to shine than their American counterparts. In fact, it seems as if the European Tour cares more about encouraging good young American players than the PGA Tour does.

I admit my research is not perfect. My conclusion is based on lengthy talks with England’s Jamie Elson and Nick Cassini at the start of their professional careers.

Elson and Cassini, both former college stars, have a lot in common. Elson was a second-team All-American at Augusta State. Cassini, meanwhile, was a standout at Georgia, where he helped the Bulldogs win the 1999 NCAA Championship. Both played in the 2001 Walker Cup, earning two points each. Finally, they want to fulfill their lifelong dreams of playing professional golf.

The comparisons end there.

One big difference between the two is that Elson should have a much easier time attaining his goal than Cassini has had in reaching his.

Cassini, from Athens, Ga., turned pro shortly after the 2001 Walker Cup and expected a generous welcome from the PGA Tour and its sponsors. It was anything but. The same could be said for former top American amateurs such as Jeff Quinney, Erik Compton, James Driscoll and John Engler. Former Georgia Tech star Bryce Molder has been a little more fortunate, playing in 22 PGA Tour events in 2002. (Molder was allowed to accept unlimited exemptions once he passed a level of earnings equal to No. 150 on the previous year’s money list.)

Cassini naturally felt he had the right credentials for sponsor invitations. So imagine his surprise when, over a 10-month period, all he got was one chance to tee it up at a PGA Tour event in his home country. Cassini played in the Invensys Classic at Las Vegas and missed the cut by a shot in October 2001. After failing to reach the final stage of PGA Tour Qualifying School that fall, he didn’t receive another sponsor exemption until August 2002, when he played in the Air Canada Championship. Cassini then played in the Bell Canadian Open and the Chrysler Championship in September, but missed the cut in all three.

That was just four PGA Tour invitations, one short of the five he received in Europe last season. Cassini, who again failed to get his Tour card at 2002 Q-School, has had to play in Australia and Canada to get tournament experience under his belt. This year, according to Georgia coach Chris Haack, Cassini plans to play on the NGA/Hooters Tour and attempt to Monday qualify for some Nationwide Tour events.

“It was really frustrating, because I was ready to go that very first week I turned professional,” Cassini said. “I felt I deserved invitations because of my amateur record, so it was a bit of a setback when I had to sit at home. It’s been hard to accept that I won’t get as many invites as I thought I would. I don’t know where I’m going to be playing from week to week.”

Now I know some will see four tournaments and four missed cuts, and say he’s not good enough, he doesn’t deserve invites. You might be right, but surely it should be easier for the best young players to gain a foothold in their own country. How much did Cassini’s poor performances stem from the blow his confidence took after being told he wasn’t wanted on the PGA Tour?

Compare Cassini’s professional start with Elson’s. The Englishman begins his pro career safe in the knowledge he will get all the starts he needs to try to get his card in Europe this year.

The 21-year-old Englishman is allowed seven invitations on the European Tour, and already was guaranteed two – the Dubai Desert Classic and the Qatar Masters – not long after he signed with IMG.

“The invitations are out of my hand,” Elson said, “but hopefully my record in the amateur game might contribute to a few invitations.”

Elson needn’t worry – he will get his seven starts. And if he fails to earn enough money, then he can accept unlimited invites on the European Challenge Tour. He won’t have to worry about playing on that circuit either.

Cynics would say Elson is guaranteed those starts because IMG has such a stranglehold in Europe. True, the IMG connection opens a lot of doors, but Cassini isn’t an IMG player and he managed to get five invites in Europe last year. Plus, other Walker Cup competitors such as Paul Casey and Nick Dougherty had no problem getting sufficient access when they turned pro. (Dougherty is an IMG player, but Casey is with Gaylord Sports Management.) I spoke with Casey during his first professional tournament – the 2001 Benson & Hedges International Open, where he finished 12th – and he told me how Ken Schofield, the European Tour’s executive director, had gone out of his way to make sure Casey would get the starts he needed.

So it’s no wonder Elson sets out on his professional career brimming with confidence. At the start of this year, Elson spent five weeks in the United States working on his swing with his former college coach, Jay Seawell, safe in the knowledge he would get a chance to put into practice the things he was working on. There was no sense of having to make the most of limited appearances. He was simply looking forward to the competition.

“If I can keep my mind relaxed, stay in the present and literally take it one shot at a time, one tournament at a time, and just make sure I enjoy myself, do the best I can and work hard, then I think everything else will fall into place,”Elson said.

Seve Ballesteros always has talked about the European Tour being one big, happy family. The camaraderie of recent European Ryder Cup teams in comparison to the U.S. sides proves that. Plus, it’s certainly a far friendlier circuit than the PGA Tour according to those who have played both. Maybe that’s partially because of the way new family members are welcomed into the flock.

The PGA Tour could learn something from that. Precocious talents like Jamie Elson and Nick Cassini deserve an equal start. Instead, they stand worlds apart.

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