Stretch run puts Tour cards up for grabs

It’s easy to forget about the Nationwide Tour, especially during golf’s season of majors on the PGA Tour. But this week’s event in Omaha, Neb., marks the beginning of 14 consecutive weeks of action heading into the Nationwide Tour Championship. Twenty-five PGA Tour cards are up for grab.

Here are some observations as the tour sprints to its October finish:

• The developmental tour cultivates talent of all ages. The Nationwide Tour isn’t just a quick stop for college kids en route to the big show.

Five players in their 40s are on pace to earn their PGA Tour cards this year, the same amount as in their 20s. Kevin Johnson, 42; Vance Veazey, 44; Tom Gillis, 41; Jeff Gallagher, 44; and Patrick Sheehan (pictured), who turns 40 on Aug. 9.

The fivesome has zero PGA Tour victories and has spent just a combined 16 seasons on the PGA Tour.

At least 12 players younger than 30 have made their way off the Nationwide Tour in each of the past three years, but that may change this season.

The most promising of the under-30 set is Australia’s Michael Sim, who already has won twice and leads the money list. The 24-year-old returns to the Nationwide Tour this week after five weeks away; he spent one of those weeks at the U.S. Open, where he tied for 18th. At No. 82 in the Official World Golf Ranking, he is believed to be the first full-time Nationwide Tour player to crack the top 100.

Another 24-year-old on pace for a PGA Tour card is former Washington standout Alex Prugh. He’s fifth on the money list and won the New Zealand Open. He was a consistent college player but never quite a star. He won just once in college, was first alternate for the ’04 U.S. Open (but didn’t get into the field) and was second alternate for the ’07 U.S. Walker Cup team. Now he is on track for the PGA Tour before many of his contemporaries.

“He was always an extremely solid player, but he’s not flashy, he doesn’t talk much, so he’s easy to overlook,” said his college coach, Matt Thurmond. “I felt bad sometimes because I’d forget about him because he just didn’t need anything.”

It’s hard to overlook him now.

The youngest player on pace for a Tour card is 23-year-old Martin Piller, an unheralded player at Texas A&M who turned pro last year on a whim, won the Texas State Open, then used the money to enter Q-School. He’s 13th on the money list.

• There’s still time for movement on the money list. At this point in the schedule last year, with 14 events to play, 16 players who were in the top 25 finished the season among the top 25. The top 12 all stayed in the top 25; Scott Piercy made the biggest jump, winning twice in that span to move from 127th to ninth on the money list.

>> The recent troubles at the LPGA have highlighted the economy’s impact on golf sponsorship. The Nationwide Tour hasn’t had such troubles.

It had a net loss of just one event from last year. It lost four events (in Oregon, Virginia, Minnesota and Illinois) but added the New Zealand Open, a stop in Kansas City and the Soboba Classic, a $1 million event.

The total purse dropped just 2.6 percent, from $18,991,094 to $18,500,099.

• Thinking a little outside the box here, but PGA Tour member Brian Vranesh might be better served spending the rest of the year on the Nationwide Tour. It’s hard to give up the perks that come with PGA Tour life, but that could be his best chance to earn a 2010 PGA Tour card.

Vranesh, who earned his card at last year’s Q-School, has earned just $35,731 on the PGA Tour this year; it took $537,958 to finish 150th on last year’s money list, which merited a partial exemption.

Vranesh is 40th in the Nationwide Tour’s standings, thanks in large part to a playoff loss at the Louisiana Open, less than $30,000 from the top 25.

• Billy Horschel, a former Florida star, Monday qualified for this week’s event in Omaha, as did Kevin Chappell, the ’08 NCAA champ from UCLA.

Horschel has missed his first three cuts as a pro. Chappell has struggled finding a place to play, but did tie for sixth at this year’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

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