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Feels Like the First Time

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Twenty players are competing for the first time this week at Kapaluas Plantation course, the vast majority of whom are making their debut in the Mercedes Championships.
There were 18 first-time winners on the PGA Tour in 2002, a single-season record on the circuit by four. It started with Jerry Kelly picking up his first trophy at the years first full-field event, the Sony Open, and continued through to the seasons final full-field event, the Southern Farm Bureau Classic, where rookie Luke Donald was declared champion after a final-round washout.
All 18 have made their way to Maui for the seasons tip-off, and some have offered their thoughts on who might don the champions crown for the first time in 2003.
Chad Campbell, replied reigning Invensys Classic winner Chris Riley without hesitation. I think hes going to win this year.
Campbell was the 2001 Nationwide Tour (formerly known as the Buy.Com Tour) Player of the Year, having won three times that year and earning a promotion to the PGA Tour.
In his first full season with the big boys, the 28-year-old Texan used six top-20s to easily keep his card.
I think Brett Quigley, said Kiwi Craig Perks, who made the elite Players Championship his first tour title. Hes played a lot of events. I think hes a good enough player to win. Hes put himself in position a few times; its just a matter of closing the door. Hes certainly got the experience, and hes a great player.
Quigley has primarily played the PGA Tour over the last six years, but hes only once ended the season inside the top 125 on the money list during that span. That was in 2001, when he finished 56th in earnings by way of six top-10s, including a runner-up finish in the Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic.
However, he once again slipped outside the realm of full exempt status by ending 2002 140th on the money list. He will have a partial exemption, though, because he maintained a position inside the top 150.
A few of last years first-timers threw out the name Pat Perez. The volatile, but talented 26-year-old was twice a runner-up in 02 while finishing 40th on the money list.
Perez was a 2001 Q-School graduate. Of the 18 first-timers last year, four came directly from the qualifying tournament, while two were Nationwide Tour graduates.
Jonathan Byrd earned his 2002 PGA Tour card by finishing eighth on the developmental tours money list a year prior. He went on to win the Buick Challenge en route to capturing Rookie of the Year honors.
All the guys that come from the (Nationwide) Tour can win out here, he said. Aaron Baddeley, guys like Patrick Moore, they already know how to win.
Baddeley won back-to-back Australian Open titles, once as an amateur. After some early professional troubles, he made his way to the premier playing ground by finishing 10th on the 2002 Nationwide money list.
Moore was the tours Player of the Year after winning three times to earn a PGA Tour promotion.
There were other names bantered about: Harrison Frazar, who has finished inside the top 100 on the PGA Tour money list each of the last five seasons; Jay Williamson, who was 125th in earnings a year ago; Peter Lonard, who made 23 of 24 cuts in 2002, and Ben Crane, who was runner-up in the most recent Byron Nelson Classic.
But there was one name in particular that was uttered most. One name sauted in respect and unachieved expectation.
Steve Flesch, said 2002 Pebble Beach champion Matt Gogel. More than anybody I think hes due to win.
Flesch has been a regular on the PGA Tour since 1998. During that span, hes never finished worse than 75th on the money list. He made over $2 million in 2000 alone. In fact, he's the tour's career leading money earner without a victory ($5.76M).
The 35-year-old left-handed Kentuckian has averaged one top 10 for every four cuts he made in his career. He even won the 1997 Nationwide Tour Championship.
But for all his skill and potential, Flesch has yet to step into the winners circle on the PGA Tour, a fact thats puzzling to even established tour players.
Ive played with him a number of times and hes got the game, said 20-year PGA Tour veteran and six-time winner Jeff Sluman.
Hes got a ton of talent, hes just got to put it together.
Hes the guy I pick (to break through) every year, and Im picking him again.
Related Links:
  • PGA Tour Statistical Preview
  • Full Coverage of the Mercedes Championships