Tour de Golf Tours: Nationwide Tour (Better Late Than Never)

This was where it all began. Well, not exactly here in San Jacinto, CA. But it did begin with this tournament. Back when it was called the Inland Empire Classic, and it was played at Empire Lakes Golf Course in Rancho Cucamonga. And I was the Special Assistant to the Operations Director. In other words, I was a volunteer with a job description heavy on “Other Tasks As Asasigned”.

Tasks like pounding hundreds of stakes into the sun-baked desert ground, and then stringing miles of yellow nylon rope along them, so as to keep the anticipated crowds from surging onto the course and interfering with play. You know how rabid those golf fans can be.

It was my very first event in my newly chosen career in the golf business, and I went at it with gusto. A week of precious little sleep and not much to eat. Days filled with long hours in the hot sun. It was heaven. The first step on my eventual path to succeed PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem – a progression so natural they wouldn’t even have to change the monogramming on the executive suite hand towels.

Sure I was taken aback when the tournament started and those “crowds” never materialized. In fact, I did entertain the fleeting thought, “why in the world did we go to all that trouble?” But I let it pass. And it did. As did everything about that event, from the venue, to the name – right down to the name of the tour on which it was included.

Now a stop on the Nationwide Tour, the tournament has been moved to The Country Club at Soboba Springs, part of the casino and entertainment complex owned by the Indian tribe of the same name. Yes, everything is different – except that “so where’s the crowd?” thing. Apparently they’re still stuck in traffic.

I had made the journey out to this no-man’s land between Los Angeles and Palm Springs to complete something that I’d started back in June. At that time, through the miracle of modern transportation and fortuitous scheduling, I had managed to visit four of the five major U.S.-based pro golf tours at tournaments in four different cities over the course of five days.

As noteworthy an achievement as that was (well, to me it was noteworthy – and my Mom was impressed as well), it was empty without closing the loop and attending a tournament on the PGA’s “finishing school” tour. As is the case with the Futures Tour on the women’s side, the Nationwide Tour is where the prospective household names of men’s golf pay their dues.

Gallery Following The Final Group

On both of these developmental circuits, every effort is made to replicate the environment of the “Big Tours”, from the way tournament week is conducted, to the small army of volunteers recruited, to the physical build-out of the event. Also on both tours, galleries are sparse – which is to be expected from somewhat of a niche sport played at the minor-league level.

But there’s one tiny, itty-bitty detail that differentiates a Futures event from a Nationwide tournament…the purse. At the average Futures Tour event, it’s about $110,000. Here at the Nationwide Soboba Golf Classic it was $1,000,000.

Yes, you read that right – one million dollars. Which by my rough calculations broke down to about $2,000 per fan in attendance during Sunday’s final round.

Since I don’t recall forking over $2,000 at the gate, I’m guessing the organizers of the event didn’t fund it from attendance. Moreover, there was little on-site evidence of a roster of deep-pocketed sponsors. Concessions? How much can 500 people eat and drink? ProAms? I’m sure per custom there were two of those – but they’re limited to about 150 amateurs each.

Maybe they packed ‘em in on the three tournament days prior to my arrival? I asked a volunteer marshal whether the small crowd on Sunday was an aberration. “Today’s the only day we’ve had any crowd at all!” he snorted, clearly tickled by the question.

Not to pile on, but that $1 million purse is only a portion of the overall cost associated with staging a professional golf tournament. Soooo…somebody took a shot in the fiscal solar plexus. Or in the alternative, through the miracle of creative accounting, on paper everybody made a bundle. Kind of like golf’s version of credit default swaps.

The top 25 players on the Nationwide Tour’s season-long money list receive full playing status on the PGA Tour for the next season, and with just five tournaments left on the 2010 schedule, it was all hands on deck for those who were anywhere within an approach shot of that elite list of earners. Because no matter who else may be struggling financially in and around the game, it certainly is not the PGA Tour player.

A quick check of the current money list reveals that 88 players have accumulated at least $1 million in tournament earnings so far this year, and the player at #125 – the cut-off for retaining Tour status in 2011 – has eked out a meager $760, 981 for his 9 ½ months of work.

In other words, these guys are printing money.

Steven Bowditch Stands Over Approach Shot

Coming into the Soboba Golf Classic, Australian Steven Bowditch was not inside the Nationwide Top 25. A PGA Tour member a few years back, he had lost his card in 2007 and had spent the last three seasons scratching to get it back. But he did have company toiling in the minor leagues – his younger sister Leanne had just finished her first season on the Futures Tour.

Yes, in an unprecedented nod toward gender equity, each developmental tour has its own Bowditch – separate and equal. Up until now, anyway.

For based on two consecutive rounds in the low 60’s, Steven was loudly stating his intentions to leave the Nationwide Tour behind in 2011. He teed off on Sunday with a two stroke lead on the field.

I’d like to tell you that it was a wild final round, full of multiple lead changes and unnerving suspense coming down to a single shot, make-or-break finish. I’d also like to tell you that the national jobless rate had dropped to 6% – but I’d be lying about that as well.

Bowditch Interviewed Just After Winning

Bowditch was never seriously challenged, and posted a three-shot victory despite simply playing the last twelve holes in even par. Dramatic it wasn’t. The win however, did vault the Aussie 65 places to #11 on the money list, all but securing him a spot on the PGA Tour in 2011.

Less attention was paid to Tour rookie Keegan Bradley, who played in the final group with Bowditch. Bradley, who hails from the “golf mecca” of Vermont, began this tournament at #23 on the money list, and with his fourth-place tie moved up to #15, also in prime position to play with the big boys next year.

When I asked The Bird why she snapped this picture of our fellow New England-ah, she said simply “He needs to date Lindsay”. That would be our niece Lindsay. And come to think of it, that’s not such a bad idea. After all, he is about to come into some serious money…

Keegan Bradley – Nephew Material?

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