Nationwide Tour Two Words that Rile the Euros

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36th Ryder Cup MatchesSTRAFFAN, Ireland -- They might be the two dirtiest words at this Ryder Cup.
 
Nationwide Tour.
 
One sure way to rally the Europeans is to mention a tour that riles them. They don't have anything against the PGA Tour's minor leagues, and some of them -- Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey -- even played there when they were starting out.
 
It's this idea that the Nationwide is the second-best tour in golf that makes them seethe.
 
'From a European standpoint, it's disappointing to hear that because of our results in the Ryder Cup the last few years,' Luke Donald said Tuesday. 'We've dominated, really, in the last five Ryder Cups. To say that the Nationwide is stronger than the European Tour ... I'm not sure who's saying it. I'm not sure whether these guys have played in Europe.'
 
Go to any search engine and type in the words 'Nationwide Tour' and 'second-best,' and there is no shortage of bulletin-board material, even if you might have a hard time recognizing the names.
 
'There's no doubt whatsoever in my mind that it's the second-best tour in the world,' said someone named Fran Quinn Jr., who has spent the better part of a dozen years on the Nationwide Tour.
 
Fueling the debate this week at The K Club is the U.S. roster. Nine of the 12 players on the American team have won Nationwide Tour events, and three of them -- Stewart Cink (1996), Chad Campbell (2001) and Zach Johnson (2003) -- were Nationwide player of the year.
 
'I think that's very cool,' U.S. captain Tom Lehman said. 'I'm proud of that.'
 
And well he should be.
 
Lehman was bouncing between South Africa and the California mini-tours when the PGA Tour created this feeder system in 1990. It was called the Hogan Tour back then, but Lehman was player of the year and went on to do great things -- British Open champion, PGA Tour money title and No. 1 in the world.
 
'It's a tremendous tour, no doubt about that,' Lehman said.
 
But better than Europe?
 
'All over the world, there's great golf being played,' Lehman said. 'I think whoever said that was probably a little over-exuberant.'
 
The only American team members who never played on the Nationwide Tour are Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Scott Verplank. Woods was playing on sponsors' exemptions when he won his fifth start as a pro in 1996, and has since added 52 more PGA TOUR titles. Mickelson and Verplank both won PGA Tour events while still in college.
 
If anything, such humble roots might show the grit of this U.S. team. Not many are prone to taking anything for granted.
 
So why does it bug Europe?
 
It started two years ago, when Ryan Palmer held off a late charge by Woods to win the Funai Classic at Disney. He had toiled on smaller tours until earning his PGA Tour card, and he talked about what it took for him to reach the top.
 
'I knew I could win because I won the year before on the Nationwide Tour, which is one of the best tours in the world next to the PGA Tour,' he said that day.
 
One certainly could argue the merits. In this current drought of 29 majors without a European winner, five major champions once played the Nationwide Tour, a list that includes Ernie Els.
 
But it's another example of how the European camp feels it gets no respect from the Americans. And it really stings when the Europeans hear it from players hardly anyone knows.
 
Like someone named Tyler Williamson, now in his sixth straight year in the minors.
 
'The Nationwide Tour is arguably the second-best tour in the world, so it's not like it's a total letdown not playing out there,' Williamson said a few years ago.
 
Or Matt Hendrix.
 
'I feel like this is probably where I should be, spending a year on arguably the second-best tour in the world, getting experience that will help in my preparation when I make the next step.'
 
And he wasn't talking about Europe.
 
Casey tread carefully about the topic last week at Wentworth, in part because of some anti-American comments he made at the World Cup last year. Still, he has heard the comparisons.
 
'I just smile,' Casey said. 'It is a very strong tour. And obviously, the PGA Tour is the strongest in the world. So that doesn't really annoy me. At the end of the day, you just look at the world ranking.'
 
Indeed, that's a good place to start.
 
Europe has eight players in the top 20, half of whom play primarily on the European tour.
 
The Americans only have five in the top 20.
 
Or maybe the Ryder Cup would be a good gauge. Perhaps someone should round up the best 12 players from the Nationwide Tour and let them take on Europe. Then again, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and America's best can't seem to beat the Europeans.
 
And ultimately, that might be one reason why Europe has done so well.
 
It is kicked around as a second-class tour, with small purses and weak fields in tournaments played on shoddy courses in remote corners of the world. The Ryder Cup is its chance to show it's not the kid with hand-me-down clothes from the other side of the tracks.
 
'We're the country cousins,' Padraig Harrington said. 'The European Tour has a chip on its shoulder.'
 
And it only gets bigger whenever someone mentions the Nationwide Tour.
 
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