Nationwide Tour: Developmental circuit or veteran hangout?

It is an annual exercise when the second stage of the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament is over to scan the results and take stock of who missed.

In most cases, the names that jump out at you are PGA Tour veterans with whom you’re familiar, so you find yourself thinking, “What are they going to do?”

The answer, in short, is, “They’re going to be OK.”

That’s because the PGA Tour over the years has created layers of protection for those fortunate enough to get inside the system. The hard part, of course, is getting inside that system, which is why as the dust settles on another year of second-stage surprises, it’s only right to debate whether the PGA Tour could be operating in a more prudent manner when it comes to doling out playing opportunities so as to nurture its young talent.

From this corner, the answer is yes, and you don’t have to go any further than longtime agent Rocky Hambric to find an ally.

photo

Sept. 8, 2007 issue of Golfweek (College Preview/Jamie Lovemark)

He has long advocated changing up the playing eligibility categories, especially on the Nationwide Tour. In the aftermath of six second-stage sites that left a number of young and talented players – Kyle Stanley, Jamie Lovemark, Mike Van Sickle, Daniel Woltman, Kevin Chappell – without many options for 2010, Hambric feels even stronger that time has come to make changes.

“At some point in time, the commissioner (of the PGA Tour) has to be the commissioner for all players – past, present, and future,” Hambric said. “Future players aren’t being represented.”

Hambric is in a long line of people who have complained in recent years that the Nationwide Tour is not being used for its original intent – as a developmental tour.

“It’s become more of a holding tank for PGA Tour veterans,” said one agent, and another remembers crunching the numbers a few years ago to discover that the average age of the Nationwide Tour member was 37.

In 2009, 41 Nationwide Tour members earned in excess of $150,000, 59 made at least $100,000, and even No. 105 on the money list made more than $50,000.

If you’re thinking that sounds like a pretty good place to be while you’re honing your game for the PGA Tour, you’re right. Trouble is, it’s tough to get out there when the eligibility is so stacked against newcomers. For proof, Hambric pointed out that of the 26 categories for “Nationwide Tour” eligibility, nine of them (No. 6, 7, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22) start with the words “PGA Tour.”

No wonder so many see the Nationwide Tour not as a young man’s playground, but a PGA Tour veteran’s second home.

“But everytime the PGA Tour meets to change the rules, it becomes less of a developmental tour,” Hambric said.

He suggests that the European answer to the Nationwide Tour, the Challenge Tour, is a far better model. “Each week there are 55 spots that are basically sponsor’s exemptions,” Hambric said. Used wisely, the spots are given to young players who need a chance to prove themselves. One such player who took advantage a few years ago was Oliver Wilson, who today is ranked 40th in the world.

photo

Mike Van Sickle hits a shot at the Nationwide Children's Hospital Invitational.

In the days following the second-stage heartache, disappointment has worn off and reality has taken hold for talented players such as Stanley, Lovemark, Van Sickle, Woltman, and Chappell. Where do they go from here? The multitude of Nationwide Tour categories are not theirs; they are for the PGA Tour veterans. Instead, they must turn to an assortment of options – the minitours, Monday qualifiers, Canada, sponsor exemptions, even overseas, or maybe a little of everything.

“In essence,” Hambric said, “you’ve got to build your own tour.”

That’s because the one the PGA Tour built for them many years ago is broken.

• • •

Winning your first-stage site is an admirable goal. But apparently it’s not a foolproof way of making it into the finals. How else to explain this bizarre statistic: Of the 13 who won their first-stage tournament, only four made it through second stage.

The four? Ted Potter, Keegan Bradley, Nick Malinowski and Ted Brown. None of them won at second stage, but each played solidly. Potter, in fact, was T-3 and played his first and second stages at a whopping 35 under, while Bradley, who was seventh in his second stage, was a cumulative 31 under.

(Kevin Kisner, who finished T-5 then won his second-stage site, was second-best, at 34-under.)

Of the nine first-stage winners who bowed out at second stage, two stand out. Erik Compton might have been the most stunning, considering that he went 22 under and won by seven at first stage, only to shoot 3 over and finish T-62 the next go-round. Ted Oh is the other name and truly, he deserved a better fate.

All he did after shooting 20 under to win his first stage was follow-up with 7 under – only to finish bogey, bogey and wind up one stroke on the outside.

Can you say, “Ouch.”

• • •

Who at the final stage at Bear Lakes (Dec. 2-7) will have traveled the furthest? If you’re speaking in competitive terms it will be Sunny Kim, Mark Anderson, and Grant Leaver. They are the only final-stage entrants who started at pre-qualifying.

Give them credit, too, because they have played consistently well given the long odds. For their 216 holes, Kim is a cumulative 27 under, Anderson 22 under and Leaver 15 under.

• • •

School was also in session over in Spain, as the European PGA Tour conducted four second-stage sites.

Of note was an impressive performance by former Duke standout Ryan Blaum. He finished at 20 under to win his site by a whopping five strokes. At the other end of the spectrum, one-time Oklahoma State standouts Trent Leon (T-49) and Jonathan Moore (T-49) both missed out at that same site.

Another notable who failed to advance: Former British Amateur winner Reinier Saxton.

James Kamte, the first black South African in more than 30 years to earn his European PGA Tour card, took another step toward re-gaining it by finishing T-12 to make it through.

Earlier this year, Kamte played in Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial and the U.S. Open.

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