Nationwide Tour kicks off 22nd season in Panama

Danny Lee during the first round of PGA Tour Q-School.

Danny Lee during the first round of PGA Tour Q-School.

The Nationwide Tour’s 22nd season begins Thursday with the Panama Claro Championship at Panama Golf Club in Panama City. The top 25 finishers on the Nationwide Tour money list at season’s end will earn PGA Tour cards. Here are five international names to watch this season:

Danny Lee, New Zealand: In 2008, Lee became the youngest player to win the U.S. Amateur. He won a European Tour title the following season to become the youngest winner in tour history, but struggled with his game last season, collecting just one top 25 and finishing 159th in the Race to Dubai. Lee will split time between the European and Nationwide tours this year. He’s scheduled to play the first three Nationwide events this season. He has made three of four cuts on the European Tour this season, highlighted by a 42nd-place showing in Dubai.

Scott Gardiner, Australia: Gardiner, 34, would be on the PGA Tour if not for a triple bogey with seven holes remaining in last year’s Nationwide Tour Championship. He finished 26th on the money list, just $2,010 behind the 25th-place finisher; Gardiner was 30th on the Nationwide Tour money list in 2009. Gardiner, who won last year’s Chattanooga Classic for his first Nationwide Tour title, has never held a PGA Tour card.

Won Joon Lee, Australia: Lee led the Nationwide Tour in driving distance in 2008 (315.7 yards) and 2009 (312.7 yards), which earned him the nickname “Boom Boom.” He has improved from 50th to 47th to 36th on the money list the past three years. The Korean-born player grew up in Australia and was medalist by five shots at the 2006 Western Amateur, where he beat future PGA Tour players Gary Woodland, Jamie Lovemark and Dustin Johnson.

Rahil Gangjee, India: Gangjee is trying to follow in the footsteps of childhood friend and neighbor Arjun Atwal, who won on the PGA Tour last year. Gangjee, once ranked as India’s No. 1 amateur, has one career victory on the Asian Tour.

Jonas Blixt, Sweden: Blixt, a former first-team All-American at Florida State, will be playing his third season on the Nationwide Tour. He finished 59th on the 2010 money list and 43rd in 2009. Blixt’s swing instructor is Henri Reis, the lead instructor at Annika Sorenstam’s academy. Blixt loves ice hockey and played for his state hockey team in Sweden.

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