The Web.com tour's young players dream of flexing on a bigger stage
The Web.com tour is the past and future of pro golf all at once.
Smaller purses, less media attention, players and tournament staff traveling together with the economy and intimacy of a circus troupe: "It's how the PGA Tour was in the 1960s and 1970s," says John Flannery, an old pro turned equipment rep.
"There's definitely more camaraderie out here," says Michael Putnam, the Web.com Tour's leading money-winner in 2013. "No one's flying private."
Yet looking forward, golf's version of Triple-A ball has become more important than ever.
Q school no longer awards PGA Tour cards. The replacement is a four-event playoff series ending Sept. 29 at the Web.com Tour Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. The series matches the Web.com Tour's best against the PGA Tour's mediocre, drawing out their torture and our titillation, as they vie for 50 PGA Tour cards. The top-25 money-winners from the Web.com regular season are guaranteed cards, so they compete only for money and order in the reshuffle. (Reshuffle, by the way, is your changing micro-position against your buddies used to decide who gets into the next tournament, and is a word you hear a lot out here.)
"If you play well, it all takes care of itself," says Chesson Hadley, 26, a lanky North Carolinian who eschews cold cuts but loves to scarf mac 'n' cheese. His 309-yard average drive would easily rank first on the PGA Tour but is merely 14th among the Web.com bombers. Hadley finished the regular season third in money, guaranteeing him starts on the PGA Tour in 2014. How long he stays there? Up to him.
"We'll see, but it doesn't seem there's much protection for the regular-season top finishers," says Edward Loar, 35, who ended the year fourth and has seen lists shake out on nine tours in 23 countries. "If you have a bad playoffs and a slow start, you get down in that reshuffle and end up back on the Web.com by spring."
Loar is a Texas lefty built like a lumberjack. He and his wife, Melaney, have blond triplets who scamper across practice chipping greens in matching bucket hats. Loar's quick to joke, and winding a Panhandle drawl, says, "Some of these young hotshots straight out of college will get a little brash, and they look around and don't realize they're surrounded by guys who were all them 20 years ago."
It's an interesting feature of the tour that the likes of Lee Janzen, Todd Hamilton and other major winners can be spotted putting alone on a baked practice green in Nebraska in August. Players and fans look, whisper, but mostly give distance.
Overall, the tour has a very young feel. Sixteen of the top-25 players are under 30. Peter Malnati, 26, who finished 20th after a magical late-season run, is wiry strong with a blond crew cut that makes him look five years younger than he actually is. (You can say that if you used to suffer the same haircut.) If you're curious what kind of stones Malnati has, know that he and his fiancee closed on a house in Knoxville, Tenn., the Friday afternoon of the News Sentinel Open in Knoxville. When Malnati won two days later, the $99,000 check was the largest of his career by $83,000. His other prize, a hideous orange blazer honoring the hometown University of Tennessee Volunteers, is sure to be a big hit at back-yard parties in his new neighborhood.
MANAGING RESOURCESMalnati's story is worth backing up to a parking lot in Wichita, Kan., this past June. On a hot afternoon, his Honda's driver seat reclined and all four doors open, he lay with his feet on the dash, munching a fistful of the crackers he keeps in a dry-lock tub on the passenger seat. He had just shot 68 in a qualifier for the Air Capital Classic. Because there might be a playoff, he can't drive the 50 miles to his host family's house to rest.
A knock. Malnati opens his eyes. A ponytailed stranger is standing outside his car. These guys are relentless, Malnati thinks. Always a variation of the same, pushy line: "Hey, you're about to go on the real tour now. You need a caddie who knows what they're doing, not some kid." Of the $45,000 Malnati raised two years ago—nine equal investments from family members and donors from the University of Missouri athletic department—very little is left.