Young stars to battle on Nationwide Tour
SAN DIEGO - For those who think the Nationwide Tour has sadly transitioned from a training ground to a journeyman’s hangout, there will be a pleasant irony on this year’s tour.
The few who take the time to read the tour’s eligibility rankings – the pecking order that determines how tournament fields are filled – will be pleased to read Category 14. There reside several of the golf’s promising young players.
A U.S. Amateur champ (Danny Lee), two NCAA winners (Jamie Lovemark and Kevin Chappell) and a Ben Hogan Award recipient (Kyle Stanley) are in that category. Lovemark, Stanley and Chappell will play this week’s season-opener – the New Zealand Open – while Lee likely will play the Nationwide Tour’s events in Panama and Colombia next month.
Many thought these players would be resigned to Monday qualifiers, sponsor exemptions and mini-tours after they failed to make it to the Q-School finals last fall. However, they all played well enough in their few PGA Tour starts last year to earn Nationwide Tour status this year.
Lee, Lovemark, Stanley and Chappell are in Category 14 because they finished between Nos. 151-200 on last year’s PGA Tour money list. Ironically, that category contributes to the complaints that the Nationwide Tour has become a place where PGA Tour players past their prime outnumber young stars on the rise.
Stanley didn’t find out until December, a few weeks after failing to get past Q-School’s second stage, that he had status on the Nationwide Tour in 2010. He was returning from the Australian PGA Championship, where he tied for 15th. Now he returns Down Under to begin the quest for his first PGA Tour card.
“The initial impression was, I was going to have to do what I did (in ’09) and earn my way out there the hard way,” Stanley, a two-time Southern Amateur champ, said. “Obviously, it’s nice having a place to play, but the goal is to be on (the PGA Tour).”
Stanley won the ’09 Hogan Award as the top player in college and amateur golf. That earned him a start in this year’s Crowne Plaza Invitational. He said he’ll likely limit his PGA Tour starts to the Nationwide Tour’s off weeks.
Chappell, who used Monday qualifiers to finish 80th on last year’s Nationwide Tour money list, said he will do the same. He was excited not to have to struggle for starts this year.
“I feel fresh,” said Chappell, the '08 NCAA champ, as he waited in Los Angeles International Airport to board a flight for New Zealand. “I haven’t felt like that in a long time. (Monday qualifying) can be frustrating. You can play well, and you don’t always get in.”
Chappell earned all of his PGA Tour money last year with a tie for sixth at Pebble Beach.
Lovemark, the '07 NCAA champ, also will seek PGA Tour sponsor exemptions (non-members are limited to seven). He lost a playoff at last fall's Frys.com Open.
He is playing in New Zealand after he wasn’t given one to this week’s Farmers Insurance Open, near his hometown of Rancho Santa Fe. Lovemark played the event in ’07 and ’08, making the cut both times.
He played last week’s Bob Hope Classic on a sponsor exemption. He tied for 48th to earn $12,900, but the event’s Monday finish means he won’t arrive in New Zealand until Wednesday, the day before the New Zealand Open’s first round.
Lee, the '08 U.S. Amateur champ, is exempt on the European Tour through 2011 because of his victory at last year’s Johnnie Walker Classic. He has to play a certain amount of European Tour events to keep his membership, but also will make Nationwide Tour appearances to try to earn his PGA Tour card.
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Nationwide Tour rookie Joe Affrunti also is in New Zealand after cleaning up on the NGA/Hooters Tour Winter Series. Affrunti played three events on the Orlando-area mini-tour, winning twice and tying for second in the other.
He leads the money list with $28,693, about $1,000 ahead of Michael Thompson, the ’07 U.S. Amateur runner-up and low amateur at the ’08 U.S. Open.
Affrunti, of Crystal Lake, Ill., was a combined 33 under par for nine rounds on the Winter Series, with a 68.0 scoring average. He earned a Nationwide Tour card at Q-School, and tied for ninth in his only Nationwide Tour start last year, at the Miccosukee Championship.
Last year, Brian Stuard used the Hooters Winter Series as a springboard to success on the Nationwide Tour. Stuard finished second on the Winter Series money list last season, with five top-4 finishes in seven starts and a 68.6 scoring average.
He finished 26th on the ’09 Nationwide Tour money list and earned his PGA Tour card at Q-School.
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While Lovemark arrived in New Zealand at the eleventh hour, Mark Anderson has had plenty of time to acclimate to the time change, and has a good history Down Under. Anderson won the NEC Master of the Amateurs last year in Australia. He arrived there Jan. 6 to practice and serve a ceremonious role for the tournament.
Anderson beat PGA Tour rookie Rickie Fowler in a playoff to win the Master of the Amateurs. Anderson, one of four players to advance from Q-School pre-qualifying to the finals, will play the New Zealand Open and the following week’s Moonah Classic in Australia. Anderson earned a full Nationwide Tour card at Q-School.