The test part is obvious in that it's the final tournament of the year, it offers the biggest purse, it has the final say in who graduates to the PGA Tour, and it's typically played on a brutally tough golf course.
The reward part becomes obvious as soon as the players reach town. Awaiting each one is a tournament volunteer with a warm smile, a sincere 'Welcome to Alabama' greeting, and, 'Oh, by the way, here's the keys to your beautiful new Mercedes to use for the week.' Just in case you're wondering, this is the only tournament of the year offering players the luxury of a courtesy car.
The early talk around the clubhouse is pretty standard. There's the customary discussion regarding the course, its condition, the 650 yard uphill par-5, and so on. There's gossip-style talk regarding last week's tournament. Actually, the gossip topics run the gamut, but we'll leave it at that. And there's the obligatory idle chat, some of which details how fast they could get the courtesy cars going on the short strip of interstate between the airport and the golf course.
The typical end of the year pressure always seems reduced at the Nationwide Tour Championship. Sure, there are the few players on or near the top-20 bubble who are probably feeling more pressure than at any other time of the year, but most of the rest have nothing to lose. Considering the majority of the field can more or less free wheel it, and the fact that theres no 36-hole cut, and the many functions that are planned, and all the players are staying in the same hotel which happens to be the only establishment near the golf course property; all these things lend themselves to an end-of-the-season festival of sorts. Its meant to be fun, and it is, but theres still some serious golf to be played.
The Senator Course at The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail is difficult'brutally difficult. The comments from the players are varied, but nobody leaves out the one obvious adjective'tough. Sometimes the weather can be miserable here this time of year which compounds the difficulty, much like last year when it was so wet and cold that the final round was rained out and likely cost Jeff Klauk his PGA Tour card. He was on the course with a hand full of holes left and leading the tournament. A win and he would have finished in the top-15. But the round was finally called off and the scores reverted back to the 54-hole totals, and Patrick Moore was declared the winner. Jeff Klauk was relegated to Q-School finals and ultimately another season on The Nationwide Tour. Fortunately the forecasts are good for this week, and Jeff Klauk could easily find himself in the same position as last year, only this time hell likely get 72 holes to be vindicated.
Picking favorites? Impossible. The Nationwide Tour Championship always brings surprises, and the course can play so over-the-top hard that even the best players can look foolish. Confidence is always a fragile thing, and this week it can leave you faster than ever. But when you combine a few factors such as whos been playing well recently and who has the style of game to match this course, a couple of names come to the forefront.
Jeff Freeman has done everything but close on Sunday. His last month or so of golf has been impressive and his game has just enough control and power to give him a chance this week. Ryan Palmer and Bo Van Pelt are both coming off a good week in Miami and both have plenty of tools to contend. Also, both players have already guaranteed themselves a graduating spot to the PGA Tour so they might just be loose enough to tame this beast of a course.
Others to watch include Mark Hensby, a great ball striker and the man with a consistently hot hand lately; Daniel Chopra, plenty of skill but feeling the pressure of being so close to the top-20 (currently 21st), and the PGA Tour veteran whos played extremely solid golf all season--Blaine McCallister.
Sunday night is graduation night. And even though the diploma is only guaranteed for a year, the accomplishment of finishing in the top-20 out here will last much longer. Some will point back to it as a watershed moment in their career. Others will remember it as just another step in the process. But theyll all remember this year fondly.
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