2004: Perspective - Nallen chooses a quieter path

As debuts go, Chris Nallen’s Gila River romp ranks somewhere south of Tiger Woods’ “Hello World” coming-out party at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open and Phil Mickelson’s “Boy Beats World” opening act at the ’91 Northern Telecom Open. On moxie, however, you’ve got to give the kid style points.

Nike had no well-rehearsed media blitz for this prodigy, and the buzz from Nallen’s eight-stroke blowout at the Nationwide Tour’s Gila River Golf Classic Oct. 10 didn’t last quite as long as Lefty’s victory as an amateur at the Northern Telecom. Yet what it lacked in flash it made up for with enough records to fill a Virgin music store.

For the week, Nallen was 32 under par in his first Nationwide event. That includes a 63 in Monday qualifying just to make the field and a tournament-record 60 in the opening round that set the stage for his wire-to-wire victory.

Before Nallen’s deeds fade into the fall foliage, it’s important to note not only what the 22-year-old did but where he did it.

The victory was nice and the records will be just the thing to regale the grandchildren, but the only number that really mattered to Nallen was 63rd. That’s where he debuted on the Nationwide Tour money list. It’s a spot that makes his PGA Tour dreams a real possibility and an accomplishment that’s often lost on the majority of fresh-faced hopefuls who bolt college each year in search of stardom in pro golf’s major leagues.

Ask any college hotshot his plan after school and the stock answer involves sponsor exemptions and avoiding the unpredictable and pressure-packed qualifying process. Your run-of-the-mill All-American will take his seven PGA Tour sponsor exemptions, the limit for nonmembers, and let the Pro V1s fall where they may.

It’s a bold plan with equal parts risk and reward. A few have parlayed their exemptions into Tour cards – most notably Mickelson, Woods and Justin Leonard – but the scars that come with failure last well beyond the most well-intentioned start.

“There haven’t been many young players that have gone out and reached his or everyone else’s expectations,” said Tim McNulty, Nallen’s agent with Gaylord Sports. “A year on the Nationwide Tour is not a bad thing for some of these young kids. The other option is to go on the PGA Tour, and your confidence can get shot.”

Despite the long odds, every year an elite group of prospects arrives at the PGA Tour doorstep with hats in hand and heads full of lofty expectations.

Using a combination of Monday qualifying and sponsor exemptions, Bill Haas – the smooth-swinging son of Tour staple Jay Haas and last season’s college player of the year – played admirably in nine Tour starts as a pro but still fell $33,717 short of earning enough to have unlimited invitations.

Casey Wittenberg, this year’s Augusta darling who tied for 13th at the Masters and exited Oklahoma State after one season, also gave it a shot but has made only two cuts in seven events as a pro. Nallen, however, had other plans.

The unassuming New Jersey native yearned to play one final U.S. Amateur, and the prospect of winning the nation’s top amateur title at a course (Winged Foot) not far from where he grew up was too tempting.

“There was no rush to turn pro,” he said. “The (PGA) Tour is going to be there forever. I was just kind of enjoying what I had coming up and taking advantage of those opportunities.”

After tying for second at the NCAA Championship, Nallen made a summer of it. He played the Dogwood Invitational, which he won, the Northeast Amateur, Porter Cup and U.S. Amateur, where he lost in the semifinals, before joining the play-for-pay ranks.

Nallen’s decision to go the Nationwide Tour route was part practical, part plan. His late start limited the number of available exemptions, and he knew he wasn’t going to steal invites from his higher-profile classmates. Understated and quiet may play well with the Emily Post set and the parents of the bride, but when it comes time to dole out sponsor invitations, pizzazz trumps polite every time.

As talented, if not as heralded, as any in the class of 2004, Nallen is a victim of his own unpretentious ways and circumstances. For much of his career at the University of Arizona, Nallen’s everyman persona was a perfect match to teammate Ricky Barnes’ swagger. Nallen was an anchor behind Barnes’ go-for-broke style.

“People have always said that I was overshadowed by Ricky,” said Nallen, who missed the cut in his second Nationwide start Oct. 17 and has one event remaining to crack the top 60 and earn a trip to the Tour Championship. “That’s fine with me. It makes me work harder and motivates me a little bit more.”

Former Vanderbilt standout Brandt Snedeker took a similar route after a particularly harsh tour of the big leagues and also has found a temporary home on the secondary circuit.

After missing the cut in five of his eight PGA Tour starts this year, Snedeker turned to the Nationwide Tour and is within $80,640 of a top-20 finish on the money list and a PGA Tour card.

“Monday qualifying out here I felt like I belonged a little bit more than I did getting sponsor exemptions on the (PGA) Tour,” Snedeker said. “It affords itself, for guys just out of college, to come out here and have a place to play. Whereas on Tour it’s kind of hit-and-miss.”

It’s not as if Nallen would have balked at a chance to play his way onto the PGA Tour via exemptions, but he’s nothing if not a realist.

“It’s hard – only a handful of guys have done it,” reasoned Nallen, who made one cut in two PGA Tour events as a pro. “(At the Gila River), it just worked out. It’s going to open some doors for me.”

Getting to those doors may have been low-key, at least when compared to Woods and Mickelson’s debuts. What awaits on the other side, however, is the same high-profile prize: the PGA Tour.

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