While the passive golf fans now turn their attention to the pennant chases and the beginning of the NFL season, those men who lace up their spikes for a living are going to be hard at work trying to earn a chance to do just that'earn a living by trying to keep their jobs. The chase for the top-125 on the PGA Tour money list is headed for the home stretch. Most of the players that fail arent likely to starve anytime soon, but their last shot at glory is far different than the one pursued last week at Whistling Straits. And while the pressure mounts for those players on the PGA Tours bubble, the same type of pressure starts to build on the Nationwide Tour.
The race for the top-20 is on, and much the same as those fighting to keep their cards on the PGA Tour, these combatants know that this is their best shot at glory. Of course, theres still one last chance at Q-School, but the odds at the fall classic could never serve as collateral for a mortgage.
While the Nationwide Tour will always play somewhat in the shadow of the PGA Tour, that shadow appears to be shrinking significantly.
The stated goal of the powers-that-be in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., is to make the Nationwide Tour the second best tour in the world. If the players are to be believed, it could be argued that, from a competitive standpoint, its already there. But thats the subjective part. Other evidence of what the Nationwide Tour is has emerged this year.
The easiest way to quantify the Nationwide Tours success is to look directly at the PGA Tours money list. Its littered with Nationwide Tour Alums. Fifty-seven of the top 125 were previously members of the No. 2 tour. So were 12 of the top 30. Alums have won 15 PGA Tour events this year. Two of those were from last years graduating class'Zach Johnson and Mark Hensby. Only four previous players have gone on to win the year after graduating from the Nationwide Tour: Stewart Cink in 96, Notah Begay III in 98, and Jonathan Byrd and John Rollins in 01. And lest we not forget, five of the 10 players to automatically qualify for the Ryder Cup team are Nationwide Tour alums.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence of the Nationwide Tours rapid ascension in stature can be seen simply by seeing a Nationwide Tour event. Every tour'PGA, LPGA, and Champions'holds tournaments that struggle for large crowds, and the Nationwide Tour is no different. But in recent years, and most notably this year on the Nationwide Tour, those sparsely attended events are now the exception and definitely not the rule. There have been record-breaking crowds at just about every event compared to previous years. But most encouraging has been the fan interest at the new tournaments and existing tournaments that have changed venues.
At the inaugural Pete Dye West Virginia Classic, there simply wasnt enough viewing space to accommodate the immense crowds. They were literally lining every inch of ground on which someone could keep their balance. Same goes for the Samsung Canadian PGA Championship that this year moved to the outskirts of Toronto. Nebraska, South Carolina, Missouri, and just about everywhere the Nationwide Tour has traveled this season has witnessed the popularity of the Nationwide Tour as a sporting event that has outgrown its minor-league moniker.
So now that the major season is complete, many golf fans will start to keep an eye on the Nationwide Tour and it wont be a blind eye at that. Six remaining Nationwide Tour events are on The Golf Channel, including four of the last five.
The Nationwide Tour has always been a big part of TGCs programming. In the beginning it was because we needed programming and we needed live tournaments to cover. Thats not so much the case anymore. But like the golf fans we serve, TGC has also realized what the Nationwide Tour has become.
Has it reached its potential? Is this as good as its going to get? Well, theres two ways to answer that.
When I qualified for my first Nationwide Tour event in Wichita, Kan., in 1990, I wouldnt have guessed in a million years that it would grow to its current level. However, having witnessed its growth in purse size, level of competition, and community support, I couldnt imagine in a million years that it would do anything but continue to explode.
My favorite analogy is to pose the following hypothesis: If the Nationwide Tour didnt graduate players to the PGA Tour, it would already be to the point of an AFC vs. NFC in football. The number of stars would be equal to the PGA Tour, and the passion, hunger, and desire of the Nationwide Tour players would be even greater.
But for now, Ill enjoy it for what it is'the second best tour in golf. And Ill also enjoy covering the stories that unfold. Those stories arent second best.
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