Gary McCord once described his rookie season on the PGA Tour as a year of total bewilderment. “I didn’t know where the courses were, where the hotels were, where to eat. It was a helluva process.”
That was 1974. Such tales of woe used to be fairly common, but the Tour’s 2014-15 rookies are a different story entirely. The Tour got rid of Monday qualifying for most players in 1983, marking the start of the so-called all-exempt Tour, and instituted the developmental Web.com tour, then called the Hogan tour, in 1990. And 2013-14 marked the PGA Tour’s first wraparound season—a huge help for rookies because it meant they no longer would have to wait until the Sony Open in January to tee it up and then hope to get into tournaments. Instead, they could ride their good play on the Web.com right onto the big Tour in the fall, when most of the game’s marquee players are resting up for next year. As players such as Tony Finau, Nick Taylor and Carlos Ortiz have demonstrated, there has never been a better time to be a first-year player.
“I think the wraparound season is huge for us Web.com tour guys,” says the long-hitting Finau, 25, who is being compared to Dustin Johnson but without all the drama. “It didn’t take very long to get back on the horse and keep playing. I felt competitively pretty fresh.”
No kidding. After winning the Web.com tour’s Stonebrae Classic in August, and punching his ticket to the Show by finishing seventh on the tour’s regular-season money list, Finau stayed hot with four top 15s in five starts to begin the PGA Tour’s 2014-15 season.
Taylor, 26, a Canadian who played college golf at Washington, did one better. After earning his Tour card with a final-round 63 at the Web.com Tour Championship in September, he said he was “just trying to get as high up in the reshuffle and play as many events as possible.” Then he shot a final-round 66 to win the Sanderson Farms Championship on Nov. 9. It marked just his 13th start on Tour and his seventh as a pro, and when he called his wife, Angie, afterward, she was in tears. “She doesn’t really know what’s going on,” Taylor said. “I don’t really know what’s going on, either.”
Ortiz, 23, is a product of Guadalajara Country Club, like his idol Lorena Ochoa. He refined his skills collegiately at North Texas before winning three times on the Web.com in 2014, earning an immediate call-up to the PGA Tour. And his play at the OHL Classic at Mayakoba, in his native Mexico, gave his fans even more reason for optimism. Paired with heroes Angel Cabrera and Camilo Villegas in the first round, and battling a case of nerves, Ortiz birdied four of his first five holes. He tied for ninth.
The Tour welcomes 24 rookies for 2014-15. Any of them could win in any given week -- four finished in the top 10 at Sanderson Farms and Mayakoba—and you get the sense that the sum of this class is even greater than its parts. Adam Hadwin, 27, has long been touted as one of Canada’s top prospects, and at Sanderson Farms he was the first to congratulate the winner (and occasional road roommate) Taylor. Scott Pinckney, 25, played junior golf against friend Finau in Utah. Jon Curran, 27, was one of Keegan Bradley’s teammates at Hopkinton (Mass.) High. Ortiz, who at 6’0”, 150 pounds admits he needs to add muscle, will make his maiden voyage on Tour with fellow rookie and countryman Oscar Fraustro, 32.
If there is a breakout performer in the bunch, it could well be Finau, a churchgoing family man (he’s a father of two) from Salt Lake City. He is 6’4”, weighs 210 pounds and hits the type of crowd-pleasing bombs that tend to play well on the Tour’s big, broad-shouldered courses such as Torrey Pines South. (See: Watson, Bubba.)
The key, Finau says, has been harnessing that power, a process that began in 2007 when he turned pro at 17. A backer paid his $50,000 entry fee for the Ultimate Game, a high-stakes shootout in Las Vegas, and Finau earned back the $50K plus $100,000 more. (Scott Piercy won.) He appeared on Golf Channel’s Big Break (with brother Gipper, an aspiring pro himself) and toiled in anonymity on the mini-tours. His mother, Ravena, died in a car accident near Elko, Nev., in November 2011, a tragedy that Tony has said “took a toll on me in my personal life, and obviously a little bit in my career.”
Things began looking up when he qualified for the Web.com tour late last year, and in the spring of 2014 he hired a new swing coach in fellow Utahan Boyd Summerhays, a junior phenom who grew up playing against Charles Howell III and is Tour pro Daniel Summerhays’s older brother.
Last season Finau improved his wedge game and his putting; led the Web.com in eagles (14) and was fourth in birdies (340); and immediately showed no fear in the fall by going 45 under for his first five Tour starts of the wraparound season. He earned just north of $600,000.
“This is a little bit different than the Web.com tour,” he says. “The media, the people, the money—everything is just like they told us in rookie orientation, everything kind of times 10.”
In other words, it’s just his size.
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