Web.com grads begin journey of staying on PGA Tour

From left to right: Carlos Ortiz, Adam Hadwin and Jon Curran. (Getty Images)

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Two weeks ago, 50 men left the Web.com Tour Championship with newly-minted PGA Tour cards for the 2014-15 season.

Over the next 10 months, they’ll put those cards to use – inevitably with varying degrees of success. Some will follow in the footsteps of Seung-Yul Noh, who captured a Web.com Tour Finals event in 2013 and went on to lift the trophy at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in April.

A select few may even reach the heights of Brendon Todd, who went from Web.com finalist to PGA Tour winner in the span of eight months, finishing the regular season 12th on the FedEx Cup points list.

The majority, though, will likely return to the minor leagues after this season. Only 16 of the 50 Web.com graduates in 2013 retained their PGA Tour cards last season, and many at the bottom of the priority list had difficulty earning starts, let alone checks.

With a new crop of players eager to stake their claim on the PGA Tour, who should fans expect to become the next breakout star? The answer, as is often the case, starts with the young guns.

While his driver’s license lists him at 21 years old, Justin Thomas could probably still pass for a teenager. The fresh-faced rookie will be one of the youngest players on Tour this season, and only 16 months removed from winning a national title at Alabama he could soon become a household name.

Thomas had only two rounds over 72 all year on the Web.com Tour, and his 69.08 scoring average ranked third for 2014. After breaking through for his maiden professional win during the Web.com Tour Finals, Thomas will begin the season fourth on the priority list and should not struggle for starts this season.

Adam Hadwin finished the Finals atop the priority rankings, and as a result the 26-year-old will be fully exempt this season as he looks to follow in the footsteps of Mike Weir and Graham DeLaet as Canada’s top golfing export. Hadwin had three top-10 finishes, including a win, during the four-event Finals, which allowed him to pass Carlos Ortiz in the overall standings – another rising star who won three times during the regular season.

While players near the top of the priority standings will have an easier time getting starts, the list is not the sole predictor of success – Todd began last season No. 13 on the list, while Russell Knox started at No. 20 and nearly cracked the field at the Tour Championship by season’s end.

Further down the priority list are a pair of players who will begin their rookie seasons on the PGA Tour with no shortage of confidence. Jon Curran counts Keegan Bradley among his close friends after growing up in New England, and following a 2014 campaign that included a win in Brazil, he’ll begin the new season at No. 24 in the rankings, with plenty of experience battling against some of the more prominent members of the PGA Tour’s youth movement.

Daniel Berger turned pro last year after his sophomore season at Florida State, and the 21-year-old has quickly adjusted to a new level of competition. Berger easily earned his card after five top-10 finishes on the Web.com Tour, and in between starts he qualified for the U.S. Open, where he finished T-28 after a final-round 66 at Pinehurst. He’ll start the new season at No. 28 in the rankings.

The list of new graduates is not comprised entirely of golf’s next generation, though, as several veterans survived the Finals gauntlet to return to the main circuit. Jason Gore, now almost a decade removed from his near-miss at the 2005 U.S. Open, will play the PGA Tour on a full-time basis for the first time since 2009.

J.J. Henry missed the top 125 on the PGA Tour money list for the first time since 2000, but bounced back to earn his card at Finals. Heath Slocum, who missed a four-foot putt to keep his card at the Wyndham Championship, cracked the top 50 with a T-4 finish at the Web.com Tour Championship.

The storylines among newcomers this season also extends to Blayne Barber, who makes his rookie debut two years after disqualifying himself from Q-School, and Sam Saunders, whose grandfather – Arnold Palmer – knows a thing or two about playing on the PGA Tour.

The probabilities dictate that most of the newest PGA Tour members will struggle to keep pace. Gaining access to events remains an issue, and last year Tim Wilkinson was the lowest-ranked player to retain his playing privileges after starting the season at No. 38 on the priority list. Still, some will thrive and at least one will likely hoist a trophy by season’s end.

Fifty men have reached (or returned to) the pinnacle of the game, with the arduous journey to the PGA Tour now behind them. Beginning next week, each will take on an even more difficult task: staying there.