Ask anyone who knew Jason Gore before his straight-out-of-central-casting climb from pro golf oblivion to PGA Tour winner what was most surprising about the Prince of Pinehurst’s year, and the answer almost always is the same: What took so long?
“I’ll be the first person to say Jason underachieved his first few years out here,”
said friend and fellow PGA Tour player Charley Hoffman. “I always thought he was one of the best players I’ve ever seen.”
To the casual golf fan, however, Gore’s rise was part “Rudy,” part “Raging Bull.” Even more intriguing than Gore’s meteoric ascent, however, is a group of players who could scale the same unlikely ladder in 2006.
Due south on I-405 from Gore’s Valencia, Calif., digs, just past downtown Los Angeles, lies the home of a foursome from which next year’s Hollywood rags-to-riches tale could emerge.
Virginia Country Club in Long Beach is a quaint William P. Bell and A.W. Tillinghast design with a small and loyal membership. It’s also home to four of the game’s most promising young players.
Two of those prospects, Peter Tomasulo and John Mallinger, laid the foundation for what many say is an inevitable climb to the PGA Tour with steady if not spectacular seasons on the Canadian and Nationwide tours.
Neither player was ranked by the Golfweek/ Sagarin Performance Index when the year began, but both inched their way into the top 130 by season’s end. Tomasulo is ranked 118th after finishing 35th on the Nationwide Tour money list (in only nine events). Mallinger is 129th.
Unranked but just as likely to turn in a Cinderella performance in ’06 are John Merrick and Travis Johnson. On any given afternoon, you can find the Long Beach foursome on the Virginia CC practice range working with longtime instructor Jamie Mulligan.
“They play and practice together all the time and they never really beat each other, so when one of them sees the others doing well they figure they can do it,” Mulligan said.
Mulligan teaches what he calls a “macro-learning” theory that focuses on the game as a whole, and not any one specific area.
Combine the talent with the built-in competition within the quartet and Mulligan has what some consider pro golf’s youthful version of the “Fab Four.”
“They all have some assets that the others kind of plagiarize,” Mulligan said.
Merrick has a smooth, flowing swing that Mulligan compares to Ernie Els’ seemingly effortless action. Mallinger has a simple, no-nonsense swing and a gritty short game.
“Whenever (Mallinger) is hanging out on the range I always try to pick up a bunker game with him,” Merrick said. “He’s tough to beat out of the sand trap, so it gives me a little extra motivation.”
The foursome has fed off each other’s success. After failing to advance out of second stage of PGA Tour Q-School last year, Mallinger and Tomasulo shared medalist honors at the Canadian circuit’s qualifier and parlayed success north of the border into opportunities on the Nationwide Tour.
Tomasulo, 24, finished in the top 5 in five consecutive Canadian events, including a victory at the Montreal Open, to earn a spot into the Nationwide Tour’s Alberta Classic, which he won in August.
“That kind of decided my season,” Tomasulo said of his two-stroke victory in Alberta. “All of sudden I have (Nationwide) status and I’m trying to make the most of it.”
Merrick, 23, went a slightly different route. He played his way into six Nationwide Tour events via Monday qualifying, earning the title “Johnny Monday.” Mallinger, 26, quickly earned a share of that moniker after playing his way into a half-dozen Nationwide events, and fell just $8,172 short of finishing in the top 61 on the money list, a finish that would have garnered a spot in the Tour Championship.
Johnson, 23, earned his first pro victory at a NGA Hooters Tour event in September.
“We all want to see each other do well. And when your buddy does well, it sort of picks you up,” Merrick said. “If a guy’s doing really well we’ll ask him what he’s doing. It’s easier to learn seeing someone else do stuff.”
The key push came in July. Following the Virginia CC member-member tournament, Mulligan’s foursome put on a 10-hole exhibition for members. The Merrick and Travis tandem won easily that day. But, more important, the event seemed to spark a late-season rally that lifted two of the four (Tomasulo and Merrick) into the final stage of Q-School, and gave the other two reason to be optimistic for 2006.
“That really helped them,” Mulligan said. “They all went on a tear after that.”
As their California neighbor Jason Gore proved, it doesn’t take much to turn a “tear” into something special.