Handicapping the New Crop

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2005 Sony OpenEven with the 2005 season still a few weeks away from kicking off, the Nationwide Tour story is already being told. A record five graduates from the class of 2003 earned their way into the PGA Tour's season-opening winners-only Mercedes Championships. The prior record for Nationwide Tour graduates winning the very next season was two. And it's worth noting that four of the five in the Mercedes Championships were PGA Tour rookies in 2004.
 
The conclusion here being: the Nationwide Tour's reputation of producing players capable of, and ready to win at the highest level, is now factual as opposed to coincidental.
 
In the process of collectively rewriting the record books, the remarkable achievements of the previous class also created a new benchmark against which the 2004 grads will surely be measured. While each of those 20 players can only focus on their own respective careers, the fact is that they will always share the common bond of being members of the same class. And in that vain, a common goal will certainly be to rewrite the record books once again.
 
With that in mind, my editor asked me to don my Carnac headwear and handicap the chances of the Nationwide Tour's latest 20 graduates as we look ahead to their 2005 PGA Tour campaigns:
 
20. Gavin Coles
Gavin is making a return trip to the PGA Tour in a familiar manner. He burst onto the scene in 2002 as a somewhat unheralded journeyman from Australia after winning the season-opening Australasian co-sanctioned event that year. After a rather rough rookie season on the PGA Tour in 2003, Gavin once again won early on the Nationwide Tour in 2004, and once again it was close to home--New Zealand. Gavin isn't blessed with a great deal of power, but he's as gritty as they get. Success for Gavin on the PGA Tour is not a given, but there have been many stories of players with less ability who forged a solid career at the highest level.
 
Chances of finishing in the top-125 and retaining his PGA Tour card: 33%.
 
19. Michael Long
Michael is also now a two-time graduate of the Nationwide Tour. While that may seem like a dubious distinction because the most often publicized Nationwide Tour alums never make a return trip i.e., Chad Campbell, Tom Lehman, Zach Johnson, Stewart Cink, and the like, keep in mind that Mark Hensby took two trips before he got his sea legs, and last week, he was in Maui. Michael has sound mechanics and a cool demeanor; both of which will serve him well the second time around. Chances of finishing in the top-125: 40%.
 
18. Chris Anderson
Much like the previous two graduates, Chris will be embarking on his sophomore year on the PGA Tour in 2005 after successfully making it through Q School in 2002. He went on to finish a very respectable 152nd on the money list in 2003--his rookie season--and is very well equipped for a solid year. He's a modest, self-effacing man, but he also carries a quiet confidence and an often-hidden bulldog mentality. He picked up the scent of success in 2003, and he'll stop at nothing to savor the sweet smell of success for a much longer tenure. I would say his odds at finishing in the top-125 are slightly better than the previous two--about even money with an outside shot at visiting Hawaii a week earlier next year.
 
17. Scott Gutchewski
Scott would have likely been voted Most Complete Player on the Nationwide Tour in 2004 if such a poll were ever conducted amongst his peers. He's a big man with great power and the touch of a pediatric surgeon. After parlaying a sponsor's exemption in 2003 into a win and two solid seasons on the Nationwide Tour, Scott now appears ready, willing, and able to make a sizeable mark on the PGA Tour landscape. Scott's only bugaboo as far as I can tell is driving accuracy, but statistics among the top money winners on tour show that to be an overrated stat. I'd be shocked to ever see him tee it up in another Nationwide Tour event out of necessity. Chances of finishing in the top-125: 80%. Chances of winning during his rookie year: 40%
 
16. Hunter Haas
Hunter also has a year of PGA Tour experience under his belt, but that was back in 2001 and he was still wet behind the ears and fresh out of college. Now with three more years of seasoning, Hunter might finally shed that often double-edged label of potential. His swing isn't necessarily textbook, and he's definitely not a bomber off the tee, but the kid can play. The game is still played on a scorecard, and Hunter knows how to get the most out of himself--and it's often in a fiery manner. He's confident, but he also now knows that nothing comes easy in this game, and he's willing to work for it. Chances of staying out there next year: 45%
 
15. Darron Stiles
Darron is one of ten former PGA Tour members making a return trip, but one of six with just one year of experience. That year was 2003 and Darron finished one spot out of keeping status--151st. He's a quiet man who carries a big stick. Probably the most accurate iron player to come out of the Nationwide Tour since Chad Campbell, I really like his chances of staying out there for a while. Somewhere around 55%.
 
14. Euan Walters
Euan is a deeply religious family man from Australia who made a statement early in 2004 by winning the Jacob's Creek Open a few hundred miles from his home in Melbourne. The reason I mention his family is that Euan had some difficulty adjusting to life abroad this past year and that might continue. With only one top-10 finish stateside, Euan knows that proving himself in America is a tough task, but his game doesn't have any glaring flaws by any means. American golf is a bit different than in Australia and if Euan's learning curve continues where he left off in 2004, then his chances will be greater than the 25% I'm giving him.
 
13. Kevin Stadler
Destined to be a fan favorite in the same light as John Daly, this every-man's man is a chunk-off-the-old-block. And they said cloning is still illegal. With more than enough talent to succeed, Kevin is still in the process of discovering just how good he can be. And if 2004 is any indication, look out. Because of a relatively short track record, it's tough to classify him as a lock, rather, he's a bit of a wild card. He could just as easily win multiple times as he could lose his card. But I was really impressed with his absence of fear. After all, he was practically raised on the PGA Tour, so he won't be intimidated by his new surroundings. Odds of successfully keeping his card: 65%
 
12. Bradley Hughes
Bradley is tied with Franklin Langham as the most experienced player returning to the PGA Tour with six previous years under his belt. After losing his confidence a couple of years ago, Bradley spent the last two years proving to himself that he still had it in him. A win last year on the Nationwide Tour in Wichita went a long way in that regard. Complacency is something Bradley says he'll never have to fight again because he never wants to re-live the last two years. Putting will determine just how high he finishes in 2005, but regardless, that finish will likely be in the top-125. 80%.
 
11. Paul Gow
After straying from his long-time coach while on the PGA Tour nearly two years ago, Paul saw the light to Gary Edwin's way. Whether Mr. Edwin's teachings, which many consider unconventional, are the secret for everyone isnt known, but they are unquestionably the right ingredients for Paul. His ball striking reached new levels of consistency in 2004 as did his play. Paul's game doesn't have any elements that stand out as being phenomenal, but he doesn't have any real weaknesses. Well, maybe he does have one weakness--playoffs. Paul earned the dubious distinction as having tied the record for most playoff losses in one year in Nationwide Tour history--three. However, he had many more chances than that to win last year, and now by his estimation, he's overdue for a victory. I wouldn't bet against it. Chances of keeping his card: 70%, with a 20% chance of winning in 2005.
 
10. Brett Wetterich
A fearless player who's blessed with immense power, Brett is returning to the PGA Tour after two very productive seasons on the Nationwide Tour. In his previous three tours of duty on the big tour, Brett fought numerous injuries and played sparingly until 2002. In 2003, he entered the Nationwide Tour Championship 19th on the money list only to fall to 24th. Last year, a second place finish at the same tournament vaulted him from 23rd to 10th. He's streaky, and occasionally fights a balky putter, but with length virtually becoming a requirement for success on the PGA Tour, Brett could do quite well. 60% chance of staying put out there in 2006.
 
9. Justin Bolli
Justin is following the same fast track as recent Nationwide Tour stand-outs Chad Campbell, Zach Johnson, and Ryan Palmer. After success at the mini-tour level, Justin made his way to the Nationwide Tour in 2004, and wasted no time in putting it in his rear view mirror. Now a rookie for the second year in a row, Justin would love to have the same type of success as the aforementioned players during his first year. He's made a career out of overachieving having walked onto his college team three times, and it would be hard to bet against him doing the same this year. It won't be easy, but if someone were to tell him he couldn't do it, that would guarantee his success. Odds: 50%
 
8. Charles Warren
I've always regarded Charles as one of the best players on the Nationwide Tour. Unfortunately for Charles, that's only a tag you're supposed to wear for one year, not five. He's a phenomenal driver of the golf ball, and he has some great touch around the greens with the ability to heat up with the putter (his weakest stat). This year marks his return to the tour after one year's experience in 1999 when he traded his cap and gown for a Tour Card. He's a better all-around player than he's ever been. 80%.
 
7. James Driscoll
Anytime an instructor, another player, or a fan walks down the practice tee, they marvel for at least a moment at James when he's hitting balls. His swing is as close to perfect looking as is possible in golf. Smooth, athletic, and powerful, James has all the ingredients. If money list position were based solely on ability, James would rival the game's best. But seasoning was missing, and judging by his late season rally on the Nationwide Tour, he's ready. His ability to block out distractions and focus on his plan for success will serve him well when he's practicing next to the stars of the game. If he keeps his card on his first try, he'll be a mainstay for many years. 70%.
 
6. Brendan Jones
Brendan comes to the PGA Tour as perhaps the most seasoned rookie since Todd Hamilton. He's had success abroad, mostly Japan and Australia, and played very well in limited starts in 2004 on the Nationwide Tour. As we hear all the time, the U.S. Game is different than Australia or Europe, but I think he'll adjust quickly. The west coast swing might be uncomfortable for him, but after that, he'll be fine. My friends would think I'm nuts if I didn't list him amongst the best of this year's class. 85% chance of keeping his card, and 40% chance of winning.
 
5. Nick Watney
Nick was one of three first team All-America's to qualify for the Nationwide Tour on his first attempt, and he was the only one to finish in the top-20. He got there thanks to an amazing run late in the year which saw him jump some 30 places on the money list in the final four weeks, including his maiden victory at the Nationwide Tour Championship. Nick will spend many, many years on the PGA Tour, the only question is if he's ready this year. His game is a bit raw, although he refined it quite a bit over the course of just one season last year, and he might still be young enough to be a bit awestruck during his rookie season. He might also be a little too nice' for his own good, it there's such a thing. 65%.
 
4. Franklin Langham
Franklin has never won on the PGA Tour, and he's had only two wins on the Nationwide Tour that were 11 years apart. However, he's as close to a lock as I see this year. Not that he's the most talented player of this year's top-20, but he is the most polished. Franklin has six years of PGA Tour experience and four runner-up finishes, and he knows how hard it is to get back to the show once you lose your card. He's not about to let that happen again. 85%.
 
3. Ryuji Imada
We've been waiting for Ryuji to live up to his potential for about four years now. He's shown signs of brilliance many times, but never sustained it for an entire year--that was until 2004. Statistically solid in most categories, Ryuji, much like Jimmy Walker, has the style of game that's often been described as tour type. That means he hits it very high and putts great. He doesn't struggle for length either. Still too streaky to list as a lock, yet gifted enough to actually win in his rookie year. 65%.
 
2. D.A. Points
D.A. is one of those rare players who just seems to improve every year. Much like Matt Gogel did in his time on the Nationwide Tour. Stuart Appleby and Chris DiMarco come to mind as well. When D.A. was clicking on all cylinders this past summer, he looked nearly unbeatable. Until then, I was on the fence about his chances to sustain a career on the PGA Tour--I'm not anymore. I think he'll show the same type of progress on the PGA Tour and will win a tournament within three years. 75% of staying put, and 25% chance of a win this year.
 
1. Jimmy Walker
Last year's valedictorian didn't do anything special this year, except perhaps winning two of the first four tournaments and getting into contention seemingly every week. My broadcast partner Curt Byrum saw something special in Jimmy three years ago when covering the Canadian Tour, and that was long before the rest of us saw it, but we saw it this year. He's a special player, and a special person to boot. He's quiet, shy, kind, very unpretentious, and confident without a hint of cockiness. He hits it long, high, and very straight. But more importantly, he expects to play well. A lot of players hope to play well, and a lot of players work tirelessly toward that end, but that intangible of believing in oneself it what usually separates the great ones, and Jimmy has it. Combine his talent with the fact that he's not subject to any re-shuffling (the #1 money winner is fully exempt the next year) and Jimmy looks poised for instant success. His odds--90%. I don't think he'll win this year, but I think his career will eventually have parallels to Chad Campbell, and he'll win on a yearly basis in no time.
 
All together, my numbers average out to 63% for all 20 players which is above the historical average of 43%, so I guess I'm a bit biased. Last year, 40% of the graduates kept their exempt status on the PGA Tour, but keep in mind, 25% (5 players) won PGA Tour tournaments. In all my years around the Nationwide Tour, there's only been one true guarantee. That is--there will be surprises.
 
Most players who've risen through the ranks will say that the hardest thing for a professional golfer to do is to get to the PGA Tour. The second hardest thing is to stay there the first year. If a player is good enough to do both, history shows that they will be around for quite a while.
 
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