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Tour's young players see opportunity at Annandale

MADISON, Miss. – The Viking Classic field doesn’t often have a lot of easily recognizable names. For golfers like Alex Rocha, that’s not a bad thing at all.

Like most rookies on the PGA Tour, Rocha has struggled keeping up with the best golfers in the world. He ranks 190th on the season money list, far below the 125th place threshold needed to keep his tour card. His best tournament of the season was a 33rd place finish in June at the Travelers Championship.

But the Viking Classic at Annandale County Club is one of a handful of PGA Tour events that is played on the same week as another tournament. Most of the world’s best are thousands of miles away in the British Open at Royal St. George’s.

The 33-year-old Rocha said that leaves rookies an opportunity. The former Mississippi State star often played at Annandale when he was in college, and hopes the familiarity will also be an advantage.

“The guys who are not here may not be the best in world as far as rankings are concerned, but they are awesome players. Make no mistake about that,” Rocha said. “Still, it’s more plausible to think that you can have a winning week at a tournament like this just because you don’t have to go against the (Nick) Watney’s and (Phil) Mickelson’s of the world.”

Australian John Senden is the tournament’s highest-ranked player, at No. 89 in the Official Golf World Rankings. Tommy Gainey is the tournament’s top earner, ranking No. 42 on this year’s money list.

“That’s just a number,” said Gainey, who has three top five finishes this season. “It doesn’t have any bearing on what happens right now. My goal is to win no matter if it’s the hardest field of the year or the weakest field of the year.”

The Viking Classic has proven to be an important tournament for young players. Luke Donald, the world’s current top-ranked golfer, won his first career tournament at Annandale in 2002.

The tournament is used to being in the shadow of one of golf’s big events. For several years, it was played the same week of The Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup before being switched to this year’s date opposite the British Open.

For tournament director Randy Watkins, the move has been overwhelmingly positive. Now the event gets more television coverage on the Golf Channel and is also part of the FedExCup, even though the 250 points awarded for a win are half of most of the other tour events. Watkins also hopes to attract more fans since the tournament doesn’t compete with college football season.

“I’ve been smiling all week because I’ve just got the feeling we’re going to change some young player’s life,” Watkins said. “There’s so much good young talent here and somebody’s going to look back on this week as the tournament that got everything started.”

The one major negative to the July move: Mississippi’s heat. Temperatures are expected to be in the mid-90s throughout the tournament with the heat index hovering around 110, making afternoon rounds an especially difficult endurance test.

“It’s warm - it’s definitely warm,” said Chez Reavie as sweat dripped off his face following a brutally hot practice round. “But everybody’s got to play in it so you just try to stay as hydrated as possible.”

Reavie comes into the tournament as one of the favorites, following a fifth-place finish at last week’s John Deere Classic. He jumped 22 spots to No. 91 on the money list with the $171,000 earned, putting him in much better position to keep his tour card next season.

At first glance, the Viking Classic’s weaker field seems to give him an opportunity to keep the momentum going. But he doesn’t see it that way.

“Every week out here - all these guys can play golf,” Reavie said. “To win this week, you’ve got to play great. I’ve just got to try and shoot as low as I can.”