2004: Our Opinion - Nationwide priorities askew

There was no tartan for Ted Purdy at Harbour Town, but his near miss typifies all that is right with the ladder players must scale to reach the PGA Tour.

A year ago to the day, Purdy was scoring a breakthrough victory at the Nationwide Tour’s First Tee Arkansas Classic. At the MCI Heritage, he engaged in a five-hole shoot-out with Stewart Cink. Purdy lost the playoff, but the $518,400 he collected all but ensures his top 125 status for 2005.

Two different outcomes on two disparate stages, yet there could not have been one without the other. All of which makes what transpired at the Nationwide Tour’s Arkansas Classic last week so curious.

Of the 156 competitors in Arkansas, 12 were fully exempt members of the PGA Tour. They were unable to land MCI Heritage invitations but were unwilling to take a week off. Among the Nationwide Tour “double-dippers” were Daniel Chopra, Tjaart Van der Walt, Vaughn Taylor and Ken Duke. All were top-16 finishers (Chopra won) who took advantage of a peculiar eligibility category that gives idle PGA Tour members precedence over lower-rung Nationwide players.

The Nationwide Tour has 25 categories of eligibility. No. 13 in the pecking order is “PGA Tour member not exempt for current tour event.”

A Category 13 player gets preference immediately ahead of Nos. 151-200 on the previous year’s PGA Tour money list (Category 14) and ranks four slots ahead of Category 17: “Additional Finishers from (2003) PGA Tour National Qualifying Tournament,” which is the primary entry portal into the Nationwide Tour.

Chopra’s $90K payday provided him with a financial and psychological boost, but what of Jake Reeves, the 2003 Hooters Tour player of the year who gained access to the Nationwide Tour via Q-School (144th, Category 17) but has made only one start this season?

In March, at the Nationwide event in Louisiana that ran concurrent with The Players Championship, there were 16 PGA Tour players in the field. The trend is likely to continue in Knoxville in June, when the Nationwide plays opposite the invitation-only Memorial. Nationwide Tour officials say this circuit crossover is part of a natural evolution and should be embraced. At its core, however, this is a mission issue.

When the Ben Hogan (now Nationwide) Tour debuted in 1990, its mission was to “serve as a proving ground for players who wish to pursue a career on either the PGA Tour or the (Champions) Tour.” Instead, the Nationwide Tour has evolved into an undersized replica of the PGA Tour entertainment machine. In its attempt to serve all constituencies, it is further rewarding accomplished players at the expense of those who aspire to make the grade. Players in Category 13 have reached golf’s promise land. They will get their 25-plus starts on the PGA Tour, which means plenty of chances to match Purdy’s feat, or better it.

If the Nationwide Tour were true to its mission, unconditionally exempt PGA Tour players would be bumped back to at least 17th in the eligibility pecking order. Then the emphasis would be on the player aspiring for a ticket to The Show, not the player who already has one.

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