While the future had already been decided for the top 15 or 16 heading into the Nationwide Tour Championship, there were still a few spots left to be decided. In the end, the finality of having their PGA Tour card in hand gave all the graduates time to relish the recognition of their achievements.
It's an even split amongst the 20 graduates ' 10 rookies and 10 returning former members of the PGA Tour. After witnessing a year's worth of their accomplishments, it's hard to imagine that they won't all stay on the PGA Tour for many, many years; however, the statistics don't lie, and right now the statistics from the past two seasons only add to the confusion.
The class of 2003 has enjoyed unprecedented success the past two seasons with eight of the 20 members of that class now having earned PGA Tour victories ' five last year and three this year. But the class of 2004, to the surprise of many, has yet to earn a single win. Only three of last year's graduates currently reside within the top-125 on the money list.
For the next two months, the 20 members of the class of 2005 will prepare themselves for the opportunity of a lifetime. Thoughts of stardom, success, and the spoils of achievement at the highest level will certainly cross their minds. Their goals and dreams may vary for next year, but one constant will remain, and that is to not come back to the Nationwide Tour.
Here's a quick rundown of the top-21 from my perspective:
21. Bubba Watson
Although winless in three years on the Nationwide Tour, Bubba's incredible length will be a huge asset wherever he plays. His somewhat reckless-abandon approach will be a source of both frustration and notoriety for Bubba, but a hot streak or two could take care of business. And as he matures as a player, he'll learn to reign it in and focus more on the scoring clubs.
20. Jeff Gove
At 34-years-old, Jeff has been at this for a while. He's got more degrees than a thermometer ' he's now a three-time graduate of the Nationwide Tour. He's an extremely accurate ball-striker, and the success that has eluded him on the PGA Tour is hard to define, except to say that Jeff always seems to play his best late in the year, and it's tough to fight from behind down the stretch on the PGA Tour.
19. Charley Hoffman
Charley will be a rookie on the PGA Tour next year and odds are he's going to take his flowing locks with him ' a coif that earned him the nickname of Harry Dunne of Dumb and Dumber fame. Plenty of power, wonderful mechanics, and tremendous heart will help him comb his way through the PGA Tour.
18. Nathan Green
The 30-year-old Australian has shown constant improvement in his three seasons on the Nationwide Tour. This year, he had one of the quietest seasons in history. It didn't seem as though he contended very often, but he was always lurking within striking distance of the lead. That kind of consistency is greatly rewarded on the PGA Tour.
17. Vance Veazey
With three career wins on the Nationwide Tour, including the season-opening BellSouth Panama Championship this year, Vance's talent has never been in doubt. He's an extremely nice person which may be to his detriment on tour. He never says no to a request, and he doesn't want to stomp his opponents as passionately as many others. It would be great to see Vance prove that nice guys can finish first.
16. Eric Axley
Eric seems to possess that which can't be taught ' belief in oneself. He started the season with no status. What that means is that he basically had no place to play that could advance his career. Making the cut is difficult enough as a qualifier, but he did the only thing that could change his career in one week ' he won at the Rex Hospital Open early in the year. Then he entered the final event of the season 27th on the money list needing at least a second-place finish to complete the storybook season. Guess what? He finished runner-up at the Nationwide Tour Championship.
15. Jason Schultz
Also a rookie next year, Jason celebrated a great season by earning his PGA Tour card. He was presented that card five days after his wife presented him with their first child ' a daughter born Tuesday. Life certainly does come at you fast. Jason is an extremely tough competitor who will do whatever is necessary to bring out the best in himself. He could be the sleeper pick of the crop this year.
14. Greg Chalmers
Greg has long been considered a world-class player, but the 32-year-old Aussie left-hander had never won in six years on the PGA Tour. He lost his PGA Tour card in '04 and wasted no time in getting it back, and along with it, came the confidence that got him there in the first place.
13. Camilo Villegas
The ultra-fit, ultra-talented Columbian also started the year with no status, but stardom seemed to be his destiny from the first day he teed it up on the Nationwide Tour. I think he's probably the purest natural ball-striker ever to come through the Nationwide Tour. He works every shot as though he's a generation or two past his time (his clothing choices may suggest the same), but he consistently fought a balky putter late in the week.
12. Roger Tambellini
11. David McKenzie
David will be a 38-year-old rookie next year. That may suggest career journeyman status, but his game is anything but mediocre. A technician on the course, David finally broke through this year with his first win after a great many close calls. If he can resist his perfectionist urges next year, he'll do great.
10. Kris Cox
Returning to the PGA Tour for the second time, Kris will continue to do that which he's done since turning pro; he'll attract fans and make friends. His ever-present smile, pleasant demeanor, and outstanding level of talent will make him a popular player. Those who know him best compare him to Bo Van Pelt in terms of the success he should enjoy in the near future.
9. Matthew Goggin
Probably the most misunderstood, or at least misperceived player on the Nationwide Tour. He has a tendency to look downright mad or grumpy on the course, but nothing could be further from the truth. He's a gifted player with the typical self-deprecating Australian sense of humor, and a quick wit. He's inherently shy yet extremely fun to be around. He's also been a world-beater in waiting for some time. When he realizes how good he is, the gloves will be off.
8. Shane Bertsch
The incarnation of Fred Funk. Not blessed with huge power, Shane plays a very impressive game of precision. He's also added length of late. He's known for fighting for every shot on the course and has the short-game prowess to scrap and grind out decent rounds even when the ball isn't going where he's aiming. Side note: best fisherman on tour.
7. David Branshaw
His gritty performance at the Nationwide Tour Championship earned him many fans. Coming in needing a second-place finish to win his card, he did one better ' he won the tournament. Don't worry about him changing if he goes on to big things because he is the genuine article when it comes to character. Hopefully, he won't feel out of place when he gets back out to the PGA Tour next year for his second trip ' he definitely belongs.
6. Jerry Smith
I was surprised when Jerry made it to the tour for the first time, and even more surprised when he finished 85th in earnings in 2001. Then he lost his card and had no Nationwide Tour status. What'd he do? He went to the mini-tours at the age of 40 to work his way back. He led the money list on the Gateway Tour in '04, and returned to the Nationwide Tour this year. He simply knows how to 'play' golf. No guru's, no magic, just plain old posting the best number he can. He's made a believer out of me.
5. Jon Mills
Wow is the only word I can use to describe how far the 27-year-old Canadian has come in a very short time. So far in fact, that many of the Nationwide Tour faithful say he could burst onto the PGA Tour landscape next year in a big way. His game has all the necessary elements ' power, touch and guts. And he also won't make any enemies in the process. Great kid, great talent.
4. Steven Bowditch
One year ago, he lived in a tent and a car. Four months later he'd secured a PGA Tour card for '06 by winning the Jacob's Creek Open in his native Australia and losing a playoff the following week in New Zealand. That put him over the $200K mark faster than anyone in history. He'll likely miss as many cuts as he makes because of his go-for-broke internal chemistry, but he's a blast to watch. And when he's on, he can overpower both the course, and possibly even the competition at ANY level. Oh yea, he's 22.
3. Chris Couch
Streaky, very streaky. I'm not sure I've ever seen a player whose fluctuations in confidence are as drastic as Chris'. Fearless is also his preferred style of play. Consistency is his primary goal, but I'd give him a far greater chance of winning multiple times next year than being consistent ' not that that's a bad thing. He's been down this path (to the PGA Tour) before, and nobody wants to prove that they belong out there permanently more than Chris Couch.
2. Jason Gore
Incredible player. Incredible person. Incredible smile. He'll be a permanent star for many years.
1. Troy Matteson
Disciplined and extremely businesslike in his approach to his craft. The soon-to-be 26-year-old former first-team All-America broke Zach Johnson's single-season earnings record, along with many other records. He was the guy to beat every time he teed off, and it shouldn't take long before he earns a similar level of respect on the PGA Tour. He's wonderful with the media, and when he lets his guard down a bit, you get a glimpse of his witty character. But don't expect to see that too much on the course because when it's time to work, he really works. Next year, and I think for many years to come, his clubs will do plenty of speaking for him.
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