The progress of which 'they're' speaking is the remarkable evolution of the Ben Hogan Tour. Oops, I'm stuck in a time warp, I mean the Nike Tour. Oops again, you know what they say, the mind is the first thing to go, or was it the eyes, I can't remember. I meant the Buy.com Tour. Actually now it's the Bye Buy.com Tour. Hello Nationwide!
The 'they' in this case is the PGA Tour, and all the king's horses and all the king's men that are included.
Together, we can only hope that the previously paved path of 13 years is followed. It's been a pretty amazing path.
The idea was tried before - a secondary tour owned and operated by the PGA Tour for the purpose of providing a proving ground for youthful talents and a resurrection ground for nearly extinct careers - and it failed. I think it was called the TPS, and it stood for Tournament Players Series. Now, it's inheriting its fourth name, and it's not likely to ever become extinct.
Launched in 1990 as a pet project of sorts of then-commissioner Deane Beman, I don't think anybody would have projected this tour's current state. In 2003, the tour will play for record purses once again, visit four countries, and increase the number of graduates to 20 from a 1990 level of five.
The number of players who have started their careers on the Nationwide Tour and went on to make an impact on the PGA Tour is far too large to list. Eventually, the Nationwide will probably be the only route to the PGA Tour. One look at recent numbers and you'll see why.
In 2001, there were the 15 graduates of the Buy.com Tour, and seven other members went on to earn a PGA Tour Card through Q-School. Of those 22, 10 players were able to finish in the top-125 including seven of the top eight graduates.
There were 29 players earning playing privileges through Q-School who weren't members of the Buy.com Tour. Of those 29, only five finished in the top 125.
During last week's Q-School, 10 of the 38 graduates were members of the 2002 Buy.com Tour. Actually, all but 10 of next year's class have previous experience on the junior curcuit, and most of those are foreign players.
There was a time when they played three-day events for relative peanuts on a few select courses that were more suited for the king's horses. Call it youth, or call it naivet, but the truth is that, in those days, hardly anyone ever complained. Keep in mind, we were only a couple of years removed from the alternative. That alternative being nothing.
Prior to 1990, the punishment for not earning a PGA Tour Card was a Visa and a passport because, back then, there were two guarantees: You weren't going to make ANY money, and you were most certainly going to have to travel. The Ben Hogan Tour was a very welcome alternative sentence.
So in 1991, when we had a bit of an informal player party/meeting outside the Motel 6, in a dry county in Kentucky, discussing the regretfully (how do I say this) 'under-conditioned' track on which we were to compete, no one was complaining. Whether we were conscious of it or not, I think we all realized how fortunate we were to be playing for $100,000 per week with a chance to earn automatic exemption to the PGA Tour.
Each year following Q-school, many players are left with that empty feeling in their stomach that comes with the realization that their dreams are on hold once again. Disappointment and depression are widely experienced by Q-School failures. They've known all along that by making it to the final stage, they're guaranteed at least a spot on the Nationwide Tour. Maybe at that point, they're taking the Nationwide Tour for granted. It's only natural to set your sights higher.
But when they find themselves playing incredible courses, visiting spectacular locales, and actually earning more money than they spend, they'll understand that they are indeed very fortunate. When they realize just how realistic it is to earn one of those 20 automatic exemptions, they'll truly comprehend the opportunity they've been afforded.
They'll be playing the Nationwide Tour, and in doing so, they'll be in following in the footsteps (or hoof-marks) of many who have traveled the same path. And they'll be doing exactly what those guys gathered around the pool were doing in 1991. They'll be preparing themselves for the future, but they'll be doing it in much taller cotton.