Martin: Rookies under pressure to perform early

Bud Cauley

Bud Cauley

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Dustin Johnson’s success on the PGA Tour is often attributed to his awesome length. Some good timing didn’t hurt.

Johnson started his rookie season of 2008 with top-15 finishes in three of his first four starts, ensuring him solid footing in the reshuffle that occurs at the end of the West Coast Swing.

“He hit it perfectly,” said Allen Terrell, Johnson’s college coach at Coastal Carolina. “These guys have to be ready to go come Sony. I don’t think they understand that. They get out there and they get caught up in, ‘Hey, I’m on Tour.’ ”

The Q-School and Nationwide Tour graduates begin the season ranked by their finish on the Nationwide Tour money list or at Q-School. After eight events, the players are re-ranked (or “reshuffled”) based on their season earnings. Because these players get into events on a space-available basis, a higher ranking means more starts (the reshuffle also occurs after each of the three domestic majors and the season’s 38th week).

“I didn’t even know where the locker room was, or the range was, or what to do,” said Bo Van Pelt, a Tour rookie in 1999. “And the hard part is, you know it’s so important to get off to a good start. It’s a lot to take in. For guys that do handle the West Coast well, it’s such an advantage.”

Twenty-four rookies are teeing it up at this week’s Sony Open in Hawaii. They range in age from 20 (Seung-yul Noh) to 40 (Gary Christian). Many are products of the Nationwide Tour. Some, such as Ted Potter, have crafted their games on golf’s mini-tours; he’s second only to Chad Campbell in Hooters Tour career earnings. Others, such as Noh and Sang-moon Bae, are veterans of golf’s international circuits. Bae, at No. 34 in the Official World Golf Ranking, is the highest-ranked player in this year’s rookie class.

The rookies can enter this year with optimism. Six rookies won in 2011, the most since the Tour started keeping such records in 1980. This year’s class has its work ahead of it, though. Not only are the rookies competing against the world’s best for the first time, but they’re doing so on unfamiliar territory. The Tour’s first five full-field events use a combined 10 courses. New PGA Tour players also must grow accustomed to increased demands from media, fans and sponsors.

The reshuffle impacts all Q-School and Nationwide graduates, even the ones making return trips to the Tour. For the rookies, it’s just another reason that the West Coast can be daunting.

“It’s a very big deal,” one player manager said. “If you miss that first reshuffle, you’re in trouble until July. You’re stuck trying to Monday-qualify and playing in Nationwide events. You’re in a no-man’s land between the two tours.”

The PGA Tour’s stars can ease their way into the season with an eye to the majors. The Q-School and Nationwide Tour grads are under pressure to perform right out of the gate.

“You blink and you’re three months into the season,” said William McGirt, a rookie last year. He finished 141st on the money list, then regained his card at Q-School. “The West Coast seemed like it was 10 days long. I blinked and we were back to Florida, and I was like, ‘What happened?’ ”

• • •

SIX PGA TOUR ROOKIES TO WATCH

Bud Cauley (No. 25 in Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index, No. 249 in Official World Golf Ranking)

Cauley finished in the top 125 on last year’s money list in just eight starts. He’s still considered a rookie, though. Cauley, 21, finished in the top 4 in the Viking Classic and Frys.com Open. He joins Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Ryan Moore, Gary Hallberg and Scott Verplank as players to go directly from college to the Tour without going to Q-School.

Harris English (N/R Golfweek, No. 274 OWGR)

English, 22, is following in the footsteps of such players as Dustin Johnson, J.B. Holmes, Jeff Overton and Rickie Fowler by graduating from Q-School the year he played in the Walker Cup. He won on the Nationwide Tour as an amateur last year, then had a runner-up and third-place finish in five starts on that circuit as a pro.

Jason Kokrak (No. 193 Golfweek, No. 191 OWGR)

Kokrak, 26, came on strong late in 2011, winning two of his final six starts. He claimed the Alberstons Boise Open after being the last player to get into the event, then won the Miccosukee Championship by seven shots, the second-largest winning margin of the year. Kokrak, the medalist at the 2007 U.S. Amateur, also led the Nationwide Tour in driving distance (318.6 yards per tee shot).

Danny Lee (No. 150 Golfweek, No. 152 OWGR)

Lee, 21, was the youngest winner of the U.S. Amateur when he won in 2008. He won a European Tour event the next year while still an amateur. Lee struggled in 2010, but found his game on the Nationwide Tour last season, posting a tour-high nine top 10s in 18 starts. He beat Harris English in a playoff at the WNB Golf Classic to earn his first victory as a professional.

Seung-yul Noh (No. 256 Golfweek, No. 107 OWGR)

Noh, 20, is the youngest of the 26 rookies. His resume is impressive, in spite of his youth. He already has won on the European Tour, at the 2010 Malaysian Open. He also won on the Asian Tour in 2008. Noh was the Asian Tour’s leading money winner in 2010, the youngest player to accomplish that feat. He made the cut in the three majors that he played in 2011, finishing T-30 at the U.S. Open and Open Championship.

Ted Potter Jr. (No. 138 Golfweek, No. 174 OWGR)

Potter dominated the Hooters Tour before having arguably the best season on last year’s Nationwide Tour, winning twice in just 18 starts to finish second on the money list. His rise to the PGA Tour hasn’t been without struggle, though. Potter, who turned pro at 19, made just six of 55 cuts in his first three Nationwide Tour seasons. He earned his first Nationwide Tour card at age 20. He’s a two-time Hooters Tour player of the year and is second to Chad Campbell on that tour’s all-time money list.

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