October 20, 2013

Bombers

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.

Cox Classic

MANAGING RESOURCES

Malnati'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.

Malnati's thinking: I've carried my bag in 97 percent of the tournaments I've played. If they let you do that on this tour, I would. And since we just met, I wouldn't trust you to do anything but carry the bag anyhow. I know that you caddies all have an agreement not to work for less than $700 a week. For me, now, paying a local high-schooler is just fine, thank you very much.

Of course, Malnati doesn't say a word of this. And as it turns out, this stranger is different. Soft-spoken, respectful. Malnati takes his number. He might be playing Salt Lake City in a few weeks and doesn't know a soul in Utah. The feat that hordes attempt but few succeed at is "Mondaying," which can be conjugated like any old verb:

• "Jack Monday'd in."

• "If Jack Mondays, he'll have to book a new flight."

• "Jack hoped he'd never have to Monday again."

Peter Malnati

An entry fee is $450, but that cost rises quickly when you start adding hotels and flights. With typically 200 or more players for 12 spots, sometimes even a 66 won't make it. But once you're in, if you finish in the top 25, you're in the next week's event. Malnati did this six times in seven tournaments.

You can even Monday by accident. That's what happened to Will Wilcox, a trim Alabamian who's mad his clothes sponsor can't send him trousers with a size 30 waist instead of 32. Wilcox drove to a qualifier "just to get it over with; wasn't excited at all that it could change my life or anything." When he shot 68, a real part of him would've preferred to drive home and see his girlfriend and play a mini-tour event.

"I go from having 50 friends on the mini-tours to having, like, two, and you quickly realize how much everybody wants to beat each other," Wilcox says. "On the smaller tours, everyone is patting each other on the back."

Wilcox started running with a crowd that partied, and in one stretch he didn't make a cut for three months. Then he said he had to disprove a rumor that he'd moved his coin on a green. This season, Wilcox finished seventh on the money list and shot a 59. "Now that people realize I'm not some sketchy kid, I've had guys come up and apologize to me. Sixty tournaments later, thanks."

Wilcox, who likes the Homewood Suites brand of hotels, now teetotals on the road and works out daily to ensure a good sleep. He says no to every concert invitation. Instead, he drinks rum when he's at the St. Croix condo of his childhood friend, whose father is his financial backer.

"I've gotten better about being a professional. Not getting emotional and just accepting that you're always under the microscope," says Wilcox, who's looking forward to maybe getting pants that fit now that he'll be on the PGA Tour.

HOST FAMILIES

Any young men wanting, or not minding, a parental hearth can have one. Each week, about a third of the field stays with host families. Often the homes are directly on the course, because the tour visits many clubs where the real estate is integrated. "It's nice saving the hotel money, plus we really enjoy meeting people," says Hadley, who with his wife, Amanda, is expecting their first child. She usually follows a few holes but then darts back to the host home to use the Wi-Fi for her IT job. Everyone who hosts the Hadleys falls in love with them. A former class president and Palmer Cupper, the star rookie lists his dream foursome as Ben Hogan, Jesus and Ronald Reagan. Not every player is as congenial.

"We had a kid who missed the cut but then stuck around until Tuesday," a regular host at the Cox Classic told me. "It seemed he was having a pretty good time."

Some players stick to hotels, even if it means sharing a room. "I like to eat when I want, sleep when I want, do what I want," says Franklin Corpening, 41st on the money list.

"I've had some random roommates," says Erik Flores, 153rd. "People are very open, especially when we travel to South America and the host hotels are really pricey."

Learning to travel: Every newly minted pro attributes his bad play to it. And it's a fair guess. "Going from playing a dozen events a year in college to out here, stretches of eight or nine in a row," Flores says. "You had coach holding your hand, school paying for everything—all you had to do was show up and pack the right clothes." A Californian, Flores recently moved to Charlotte so he could drive to more events and wake up in fewer time zones. As for food, he's stepping away from the free buffet. "It's not that it's bad," he says. "There are just a lot of mass-produced, industrial-type products."

GOING LOW

With the golf, the only thing to get used to is more birdies, which isn't bad at all. "The course setups we played in college were harder," Flores says. Even par was a great score then not solely because the fields were watered down with future desk-jockeys. Flores thinks the sentiment that it's distasteful to have your course torched by "some college kid" is less pervasive in the pro ranks. Hal Geyer, one of the rules officials in charge of setup at Web.com events, says protecting par never enters his mind. "I find the best four hole locations on each green, and that's it. There might be better times of year to play some of these courses so the rough would be different, but the fact is, these guys don't get enough credit for how good they are."

Chesson Hadley

"When the European stars are away at the majors and WGCs, you could put up a Web.com field against any European Tour field," Loar says. As for the PGA Tour, "Those guys wouldn't necessarily score any better on the courses we play. But up there you have to drive it straighter and make birdies with all your irons." "On Web.com you can definitely get away with it a bit more," says Spencer Levin. And by "it" he means freewheeling with the driver.

Brazilian Alex Rocha, who has competed in 50 PGA Tour events and is trying to regain full status, has at times called his coach, Jason Birnbaum, forlorn after a 67 or 68. "He knows that the way he hit the ball, that slight spray or sloppiness wouldn't have worked on the big tour," Birnbaum says.

Walking down a Web.com range, Loar says maybe one in four players has "that sound" of a ball perfectly compressed. On the PGA Tour, he says it's more like one in two. "Of course, you can hear a clank and then look up and see a guy who's made $25 million."

Daniel Chopra, who has two PGA Tour wins, says golf is golf. "The difference is the setting. Out here it's peaceful and quiet. Out there it's chaos, tens of thousands of people and big trucks backing in all over the place."

Hadley and his fellow graduates know the only thing they can do is believe in their ability. Right now it's the business of golf that has Hadley's attention. A PGA Tour card means new contracts, and so he's looking into getting an agent. "It can't just be anyone. You have to find someone you enjoy writing big checks to."

How to know if you've got what it takes for Web.com?

"Simple," Wilcox says. "You've got to be going deep every day. I play with friends at home shooting 70, 71 on their course, and they'll tell me they're thinking about turning pro. I'm just like, Dude."

Wilcox thinks his success has come from low expectations. "I never thought I'd make it to where I'm at. When I was 16, I wished I was as good as tons of other kids." Not exactly covering his employment options, Wilcox failed every class his last semester of college. Transitioning to the life of mini-tour golfer was not a shock to his system.

"I did nothing but play and practice every day. And then I started shooting 66, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me."