Change, and plenty of it, is on the horizon for the Nationwide Tour. Instead of looking forward, let’s look back at what was an interesting season for the PGA Tour’s secondary circuit.
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1. Change is in the air
The Nationwide Tour isn’t often a hot debate topic. Only the hardcore golf fanatics tune in to its telecasts. Not this year, though. The Nationwide Tour was at the center of heated debate about proposed changes to the PGA Tour’s qualifying system. Those changes could be implemented as early as 2013, the same season that the Nationwide Tour will likely debut a new name. Nationwide Insurance will not renew its sponsorship contract when it expires after the 2012 season.
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2. Erik Compton, Billy Hurley earn PGA Tour cards
The Nationwide Tour is a means to an end. It’s all about earning PGA Tour cards, and two of the game’s great stories did that in 2011. Compton, a two-time heart transplant recipient, finished 13th on the money list after winning the Mexico Open for his first career Nationwide Tour victory. Former Navy lieutenant Billy Hurley finished 25th on the money list to nab the final PGA Tour card. Both will be PGA Tour rookies in 2012.
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3. Potter’s wizarding world
Ted Potter Jr. graduated from the mini-tours to the big leagues in 2011, turning in arguably the Nationwide Tour’s best season. Potter, 28, finished second on the money list to Nationwide Tour Player of the Year J.J. Killeen. Potter finished about $12,000 behind Killeen despite making seven fewer starts. Both players had two victories this year. Potter earned more per start ($22,359 to $16,570), finished in the top 10 a higher percentage of the time (33 percent to 28 percent) and had a lower scoring average (69.12 to 69.3) than Killeen. The most amazing part? Potter, a two-time Hooters Tour player of the year, started the season with no status. He won his first start of the season, the South Georgia Classic, after earning a spot via a Monday qualifier.
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4. Amateur hour
Two amateurs won on the Nationwide Tour in 2011. They weren’t just college teammates, but former roommates at the University of Georgia. Russell Henley won in front of the home crowd at the Stadion Classic at UGA. Harris English won the Nationwide Tour’s flagship event, the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational. English was arguably the top rookie pro to earn a PGA Tour card at this year’s Q-School. Henley will play the Nationwide Tour in 2012.
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5. Danny Lee earns PGA Tour card
The WNB Golf Classic was Danny Lee’s first professional win…as a professional. You remember Lee, right? He won the U.S. and Western amateurs in 2008. He won the European Tour’s Johnnie Walker Classic in 2009 while still an amateur. Lee, 21, played the Nationwide Tour in 2011, finishing sixth on the money list to earn his first PGA Tour card. He won the WNB Golf Classic and had a tour-high nine top-10s in 18 starts. Watch out for him on the PGA Tour in 2012.
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6. J.J. Killeen wins money title
Two wonderful weeks clinched the Nationwide Tour’s money title and player-of-the-year award for J.J. Killeen. The 30-year-old won the Utah Championship and Cox Classic in consecutive starts for the first two Nationwide Tour titles of his career. He was a combined 44 under par in those eight rounds, all of which were in the 60s. Half of those eight rounds were 65 or better, including a 62, 63 and 64. Killeen had five other top-10s and earned $414,273. Killeen said work with Chris O’Connell, who also instructs Matt Kuchar, was one reason for his great season.
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7. Jason Kokrak’s graduation
Kokrak was an alternate for the Albertsons Boise Open, eventually becoming the last player to earn entry into the field. He won, then won again three starts later, this time with a seven-shot victory at the Miccosukee Championship. The victories confirmed the promise Kokrak had shown while dominating the mini-tours. He won the eGolf Professional Tour money title in 2010, then won twice on that tour in three 2011 starts. Kokrak, 26, also led the Nationwide Tour in driving distance, with an average drive of 318.6 yards.
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8. Mathew Goggin’s return to form
Here’s a trivia question for you. Who played with Tom Watson in the final group of the 2009 Open Championship? Mathew Goggin. He was in the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking in 2009, but found his way to the Nationwide Tour in 2011 after issues with ill-fitting equipment. Goggin, who eschewed endorsement deals as he tried to find his form, won twice on the Nationwide Tour in 2011 and finished third on the money list.
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9. Ken Duke wins Tour Championship
The Nationwide Tour saves its best for last. The Nationwide Tour Championship has a $1 million purse so that any player in the field can earn a PGA Tour card with a win. Ken Duke, 42, took advantage of the season-ending riches, winning at Daniel Island Club to leap from 36th to seventh on the money list and earn a return to the PGA Tour for the first time since 2009.
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10. PGA Tour Latinoamerica
The new tour, announced in October, not only will help the PGA Tour plant its flag in a growing region, but will become the first feeder tour to the Nationwide Tour. One of the new tour’s qualifying tournaments will be held in South Florida, allowing players from the United States to take advantage of this new opportunity. PGA Tour Latinoamerica will conduct its first season in 2012.