Nationwide notes: Hicks on road to PGA Tour

Justin Hicks won his second Nationwide Tour title on May 16.

Justin Hicks won his second Nationwide Tour title on May 16.

“Journeyman’’ was the popular tag placed on Justin Hicks when he was the surprising 18-hole co-leader at the 2008 U.S. Open. Hicks had been a professional for more than a decade when he teed it up at Torrey Pines, but he had made just 35 Nationwide Tour starts and two PGA Tour starts.

Hicks hasn’t played a PGA Tour event since that Open, in which he tied for 74th, but that could change after his victory last week at the Nationwide Tour’s BMW Charity Pro-Am. Hicks moved to No. 7 on the money list; the top 25 at season’s end earn PGA Tour cards.

Hicks had to wait an hour to hit his approach to the BMW’s final hole because of a weather delay. When he returned to the course, he hit 7-iron to 4 feet and made the birdie putt.

No surprise there. Hicks is one of the tour’s best ball-strikers, leading in greens in regulation (79.2 percent) and ranking 10th in driving accuracy (77.3). He missed just five greens in the BMW’s four rounds.

Hicks, 35, turned pro in 1997 after playing for the University of Michigan. He has never had a PGA Tour card.

His previous victory was in 2008, at the Ford Wayne Gretzky Classic. Hicks missed 10 of 21 cuts that year and finished 33rd on the money list, eight shots shy of a PGA Tour card. The victory came two weeks after the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.

Several recent changes helped Hicks return to the winner’s circle:

• He put a new putter in the bag during his last Nationwide Tour start. It’s the same model – Odyssey No. 9, a heel-shafted mallet – but is the company’s Black Series Tour Designs line, which has no insert. Hicks had been playing a version of the putter with the White Hot insert. “It helps (the ball) to roll out a little bit more than their insert line,” Hicks said.

• This was the second consecutive week that Hicks had Tom Tontapanish, his good friend/instructor, on his bag. “I told him earlier this week, ‘It’s a little extra bit of confidence having you on the bag, that I think is really going to pay off for us one day out here,’ ” Hicks said. “He’s seen it all. He knows how I swing, what my tendencies are.”

• Hicks experimented with several sets of irons earlier this year while switching to ones that conformed with the new grooves rule. He settled on Titleist CB 710s, and flattened the entire set about 1 degree (to 1 degree upright). He put the new set in the bag just before the Fresh Express Classic in April, where he tied for fifth.

“It doesn’t sound like much, but in the end the shots produced were a lot straighter,” Hicks said. “By making a normal swing, I was hitting a lot straighter iron shots with a lot less curve to them. Under pressure I was able to hit straighter shots. It very well could’ve been the reason I hit the shot as close as I did on 18.”

• • •

Clint Jensen is on quite a hot streak. The 35-year-old has played his past eight competitive rounds in 38 under par, making 44 birdies (5.5 per round) and one eagle against just eight bogeys in that span. His scoring average for the past two weeks: 67.0.

Jensen shot 23-under 265 May 5-8 to win the eGolf Professional Tour’s Cowans Ford Open, which earned him a sponsor exemption into last week’s BMW Charity Pro-Am. He tied for 11th there to earn a start in this week’s Rex Hospital Open.

The two weeks were worth $46,953 for the former Tulsa All-American, who has never had status on the PGA or Nationwide tours. Jensen is on his second attempt at pro golf. He quit in fall 2006 – withdrawing from Q-School because of his poor play – but returned to the game in May 2008. He spent part of his hiatus working in the cart barn at Lost Tree Club in North Palm Beach, Fla.

“It means a little bit more because I really didn’t want to do anything else,” Jensen said about his recent play. “This is all I wanted to do. To be able to have some success is pretty gratifying.”

Jensen played the first 60 holes of the eGolf event without a bogey. He had just four bogeys in the first seven rounds of his streak, but made four in his final-round 70 at the BMW, including on his final two holes.

• • •

Kevin Chappell bogeyed the 72nd hole at the BMW Charity Pro-Am to finish two strokes behind Hicks but overtook the top spot on the Nationwide Tour money list.

Bobby Gates had led the list since winning the season-opening New Zealand Open. Chappell, who won earlier this year at the Fresh Express Classic, has $190,621 and is virtually ensured to finish in the top 25 on the money list and earn a PGA Tour card.

Gates played the PGA Tour’s Valero Texas Open last week on a sponsor exemption. He was inside the cut line until playing his final three holes in 5 over par (bogey-triple-bogey). Gates shot 72-77.

The top four on the Nationwide Tour money list (Chappell, Gates, Martin Piller and Chris Kirk) are all 25 years old and younger. Jamie Lovemark, 22, is eighth on the money list thanks to four top-5s in eight starts.

Chappell, Kirk and Lovemark all tied for second at the BMW, along with Tommy Gainey. Kirk also was runner-up in this year’s Moonah Classic, losing a playoff to Jim Herman.

• • •

SHORT SHOTS: The team of Scott Gutschewski and amateur Rolf Klam finished at 47 under par for four days to win the pro-am portion of the BMW Charity Pro-Am, four shots better than pro Rob Oppenheim and Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Rice. . . . Tommy Biershenk shot a third-round 62 at The Carolina Country Club en route to a tie for 32nd. Biershenk shot 71s in the other three rounds. . . . Keegan Bradley missed the cut despite a 61 in the second round at Thornblade Club. Bradley made a hole-in-one on the par-3 fourth hole. Bradley shot 73-61-77. . . . Scott Sterling shot a final-round 62, including a hole-in-one on the par-3 sixth hole, and tied for seventh. . . . Rookie Scott Stallings shot a final-round 63 to post the best finish of his career (T-7).

• • •

MOVED INSIDE THE TOP 25

  • No. 7 Justin Hicks (from No. 47)
  • No. 17 Tommy Gainey (from No. 37)

MOVED OUTSIDE THE TOP 25

  • No. 28 Kevin Kisner (from No. 24)
  • No. 29 Andrew Buckle (from No. 25)

• • •

On the tee

Rex Hospital Open

When: May 20-23

Where: TPC Wakefield Plantation, Raleigh, N.C.

Why it’s important: Grayson Murray, No. 16 in the Golfweek Junior Rankings, earned a spot in the field with his victory May 16 in the Rex Hospital Junior Open. Murray, a high-school sophomore, shot 136 (69-67). Murray’s second-round 67 came at TPC Wakefield Plantation.

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