And so, after a week of brutal conditions and immense pressure in Prattville, Ala., on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, 15 of the best players you might not know about have donned the cap and gown and are headed to the PGA Tour. Some appear to be 'locks' for success, while others still have some things to prove.
It was a year for the rookies, as three parlayed their maiden voyage on the Buy.Com Tour into a promotion to the big tour. Chad Campbell, Brenden Pappas and Jason Hill all graduated with honors.
It was also a year for the veteran. Canadian Richard Zokol earned a victory in his native Canada and returns to the PGA Tour full-time as a man in his 40s.
It was a year for perseverance as Matt Peterson turned nine years of hard work on this circuit into a promotion to the PGA Tour for the first time.
And don't dismiss the 'comeback kids.' Pat Bates returns to the big leagues after a near career-ending neck injury and Heath Slocum, who like Bates and Campbell, won three times to rebound from an illness that kept him off the course for months. Like Bates, the thought of the PGA Tour was a distant second to health and happiness when the year began.
All that said, here are my thoughts on the graduates and their chances for success at the next level:
1)Chad Campbell - Three-time winner and leading money winner on the Buy.Com tour. His $394,552 came because of 21 of 23 cuts made and eight top-10 finishes. The Texas native arrived on this tour after making some $800,000 in four years on the Hooters Tour. He's won at every level and in my opinion is the best player on this tour. A 'certainty' at the next level and possible rookie winner on the PGA Tour. You won't see him back in the minors.
2)Pat Bates - Three-time winner including the Buy.Com Tour Championship. He made 18 of 24 cuts and a victory in his last two starts. $352,261 in earnings because he's solved his bad habit of wildness off the tee. Not as long as he used to be, but he's accurate and man, can he putt! Back on the PGA Tour for first time since '95. Winning at the next level might take a while, but he may now have what it takes to keep pace with the very best.
3)Heath Slocum - Three-time winner and the first to earn the 'Battlefield Promotion' this year. $339,670 in just 18 starts. Straight as an arrow off the tee and a very smart player. He went 106 holes without a bogey during a stretch this summer. Played a handful of PGA Tour events after his mid-season 'promotion,' but didn't make much of the green stuff. Chances of keeping the card next year are about 50-50.
4)Rod Pampling - The Australian is about as consistent as they come. He didn't win in 2001 but with $306,573, he was right there just about every week. 21 of 26 cuts made, nine top-10s including three seconds. I like his chances of playing well next year. He reminds me of fellow Aussie Paul Gow, who lost a playoff at this year's B.C. Open.
5)Deane Pappas - The South African is about as good a putter as you'll see. Winner on the Buy.Com Tour in 2001 and had eight top-10s. 19 of 24 cuts made and $271,169. He played the PGA Tour in 1999, but like Bates has struggled at times with accuracy. A seasoned veteran who doesn't get rattled easily. I like his odds if he rolls it with the same consistency. My only question is the swing, which is still a work in progress.
6)John Rollins - Winner at the Buy.Com Hershey Open. He won at one of the toughest courses on tour. The native Virginian earned his PGA Tour card at Q-school in '99 but couldn't keep it. Now he's back after making 17 of 25 cuts and posting six top-10s. Earned $242,841 and is a tough customer. Very focused and businesslike on the course. Certainly has the ability, but not a lock. Still, I think he'll have some big weeks.
7)Tim Petrovic - Like Pampling, he didn't win, but what a start to the year. He began 2001 without fully exempt status but posted seven top-10s. Qualified for the U.S. Open and played well at Southern Hills. The Massachusetts native collected $239,010 and led the tour in scoring average at 69.68. He's easygoing, easy to get along with and just loose enough to surprise some people.
8)Jonathan Byrd - Rookie winner who earned $222,244. The South Carolina native made 16 of 20 cuts and posted five top-10s. He is long. Very long. But also very talented. Very talented! Not many players have his practice habits and dedication. Like Campbell, Byrd has a long list of supporters who think he's a sure-hit. I'm one of them.
9)Jeff Gove - The Seattle native is among the best at the Buy.Com level. 18 of 25 cuts and six top-10s. He's a streaky player who can get hot for a couple months. And isn't that what it takes at any level? Gove had his card last year and couldn't keep it. No guarantees this time either, but along with his $198,812, he proved that he's mentally tough. That should serve him well in 2002.
10)Brenden Pappas - Deane's younger brother finished second at the Buy.Com Tour Championship. Huge week as he was the only player to climb into the Top-15. Earned $188,152 with two runner-up finishes. A rookie on the Buy.Com Tour, he's a smart player whose seasoning comes from the South African Tour where he played dating back to 1994. He was also the leading money-winner on the 2000 Teardrop Tour. The Tour Championship proved a lot to me; next year he needs to prove some more.
11) Bo Van Pelt - Back to the big tour for the big hitter from Indiana and Oklahoma State. It was just a couple years ago that Van Pelt earned his big tour card in his first try at the Qualifying School. He couldn't keep it, but did have some nice weeks. 17 of 24 cuts made and $175,947 with five top-10s, including two runner-up finishes. I like Van Pelt's game and his maturity. A young player with a wife and baby, has plenty to play for.
12)Matt Peterson - The Chicago area native spent nine seasons on the Buy.Com Tour and has finally made it! Earned $169,947 after making 19 of 21 cuts and posting six top-10s. The feel-good story in 2001, the 34-year old is smart and straight, having led the tour in accuracy in 1999 and 2001. What a story if he could keep his PGA Tour card. We'll see how much nine years and just one win helps.
13)Richard Zokol - A Canadian veteran who's been a professional since 1984. Zokol's won on the PGA Tour and this year proved he still has it in him. Won in his native Canada at the CPGA Championship. Earned $167,192 after making 18 of 21 cuts. First full year back on the PGA Tour since 1994. A true 'professional' and tactician on the course. He's smart, he's dedicated and after talking with him a lot, I think he's determined to make the most of his mid-40s.
14)Jason Hill - The Texas rookie starred on the Lone Star Tour before joining the Buy.Com. Won the Steamtown Classic this year on a very tough track. Made 17 of 26 cuts to the tune of $166,899. This guy played nine weeks in a row, including the season-ending Tour Championship. He's a lot like John Rollins in that he's tough and focused. Hill's not a guarantee at the next level. Not yet anyway. Just don't tell him that.
15)Michael Long - The New Zealander won the Boise Open, which made up a large chunk of his $161,665. Made 15 of 23 cuts with three top-10s. Doesn't appear to be a lock, but he's played on World Cup and Dunhill Cup teams for his country. Won in New Zealand and played the European Tour. Quietly could come up with big year on the PGA Tour. He's seasoned.
It was a great year. We saw three 'Battlefield Promotions,' a few rookie surprises and a record number of men earning $300,000-plus. This tour is as strong as ever and just as Garrett Willis proved this year in Tucson, just because someone didn't finish in the top-15, don't count them out at Q-school where they'll get another chance at the PGA Tour and winning as well.
One thing that is a lock - it won't be called the Buy.Com Tour next year. That agreement has come to an early end. Whatever it's called, there are many who'd love the chance to play it next year!
See the final Buy.Com money list