PALM HARBOR, Fla. – The road to a PGA Tour card can be a difficult one for young professionals.
Not only are sponsor exemptions harder to come by this year with standard Tour events getting just two unrestricted sponsor exemptions, but the transition to professional golf, especially for players leaving college early, can be equally tough.
Patrick Cantlay, Jordan Spieth and Peter Uihlein –- all of whom are playing in the Tampa Bay Championship this week at Innisbrook Resort –- are faring better than most.
Cantlay is the only one of the three playing on a sponsor exemption this week in Palm Harbor. He is also the only one with a victory on a major professional tour after his win at the Web.com Tour’s Colombia Championship earlier this month.
“I feel really comfortable playing out here,” said Cantlay, who fired a 1-under 70 Thursday on the Copperhead course.
The former UCLA star and 2011 U.S. Amateur runner-up turned pro following his sophomore season in Los Angeles last June. He’s earned $195,411.11 in five starts on the PGA Tour this year, making two cuts, but currently leads the Web.com Tour money list by $11,310. The top 25 on the Web.com Tour money list at the end of the season earn PGA Tour cards.
“(Earning a PGA Tour card via the Web.com Tour) is not the ideal route, but it’s definitely a route that’s fine and good,” Cantlay said. “The ideal route is playing well out here and I still have a couple starts left. One good event out here changes everything.”
Cantlay has now used six of his allotted seven sponsor exemptions. He’ll use his last one at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial in May. He said he also plans to Monday qualify for the Shell Houston Open in two weeks. His next start on the Web.com Tour will come next week at the Louisiana Open.
He said not much has changed since he first turned pro. Cantlay said last year, shortly after turning pro, that “if you’re good enough to be a pro, you’re going to be able to be a pro pretty quick and it’ll be apparent.”
And he’s proving he’s comfortable on the highest stage so far.
Spieth, who turned pro in December midway through his sophomore season at Texas, is playing in his fourth PGA Tour event of the season. He shot 1-over 72 to open play in Palm Harbor.
He’s used only three of his allotted seven sponsor exemptions for the year, though, thanks to his T-2 finish at the Puerto Rico Open, which earned him an automatic spot in the Tampa Bay field.
“Last week, being able to look at the leaderboard and be on the top with a couple other guys, it was a new experience,” said Spieth, who helped lead the Longhorns to the 2012 NCAA Championship. “I enjoyed it and felt like I played really well, felt like I controlled my emotions and hit good shots.”
Spieth has made two of three cuts on Tour in 2013, also finishing T-22 at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, and has earned $373,000. If he earns an additional $101,295, he’ll earn special temporary status and will have unlimited sponsor exemptions for the remainder of the season.
He can also earn his PGA Tour card by way of the Web.com Tour. He’s finished T-7 and T-4 in two Web.com Tour starts this season and is 10th on the money list ($50,150).
Spieth has three more sponsor exemptions lined up – the Shell Houston Open in two weeks, the Valero Texas Open the following week and the HP Byron Nelson Championship in May. Spieth made his PGA Tour debut at the Byron Nelson in 2010 and finished T-16 at just 16.
Three years later, he’s approaching professional tournaments the same way – “I still believe that you don’t ever enter a tournament unless you’re trying to win the tournament,” he said. Getting used to the schedule, however, has taken some getting used to.
“It’s different because now I never even play two weeks in a row and this is now my fourth week in a row,” Spieth said.
“Preparation is a little different. As long as I’m learning each week, playing with more veterans and learning how they play practice rounds, I feel more confident when Thursday starts.”
Uihlein also earned a spot in the Tampa Bay field by way of his finish in Puerto Rico, and shot 5-over 76 in his opening round. It was the first PGA Tour start of 2013 for the former Oklahoma State standout, who left school in December 2011 after the fall semester of his senior year.
He finished T-6 in Rio Grande and earned $121,625, meaning he has a little more work to do than Spieth. Uihlein has made four of nine cuts in his PGA Tour career, including at this event in 2011, when it was still called the Transitions, and the 2011 Open Championship.
He’s done most of his damage this year, however, across the pond. He’s made three of four cuts on the European Tour, where he has conditional status and is currently No. 56 on the money list. He was supposed to play in the European Tour’s Avantha Masters in India this week, but changed his schedule after getting into Tampa Bay.
“I love this track,” Uihlein said. “It’s a great course and it’s a lot of fun to play.”
Uihlein said he’s unsure where – and on what tour – his next start will be.
“This is seven in a row for me so I’m going to take a little break and we’ll see how it goes,” Uihlein said.
For all three, the transition to pro golf hasn’t looked all that difficult. But then again, these guys proved they could play in college, and they’re proving themselves once again as pros.