When he sang, “Everybody here’s a number, not a name,” Bruce Hornsby wasn’t describing the Tour rank and file, but he could have been. Players such as Harold Varner III (No. 33 of the 50 who graduated from the Web.com) and Tyler Aldridge (29) are assigned numbers to designate status to fill out fields once all of the exempt players are accommodated. The lower your number, the better your chances to get into a tournament. The mission: Play well, improve your number after the first reshuffle (following the McGladrey Classic, on Nov. 19-22), and stay on Tour beyond this year.
The fall season — call it “the foothold swing” — is about proving you belong. There’s more money on offer at the majors, the WGCs and the Players Championship, but many of the guys playing in such places as Napa and Vegas tee it up with something bigger in the balance: their viability as Tour pros.
“It’s tough,” says Steven Bowditch, 32, who finished second at last year’s Frys.com Open and won the AT&T Byron Nelson in May. “I did it for basically 2010, ’11, ’12. I was always trying to get my card back. One year I was between first and fourth alternate about seven times. Everyone goes, ‘Wow, you got your PGA Tour card.’ Well, yeah, and that’s an incredible accomplishment, but it’s even tougher to keep it.”
Varner and Aldridge most likely won’t get into every event they desire in 2016, so they must shine in low-wattage tournaments like the Frys.com, this week’s Shriners Hospitals for Children in Las Vegas, and other fall events in Jackson, Miss.; Playa del Carmen, Mexico; and St. Simons Island, Ga. (The CIMB Classic in Malaysia, on Oct. 29-Nov. 1, and the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, on Nov. on 5-8, are reserved for the stars.)
“Really excited,” Varner said at the Frys.com. “It’s another opportunity. Good golf is going to take care of everything.” Varner was good for three days at Silverado Resort, hanging around the lead before stumbling home with a Sunday 79 that dropped him to 48th.
“I didn’t putt well my first year on Tour, in 2009,” Aldridge said as he toiled on the Silverado practice green. “I just couldn’t read the greens with my eyes, so I’ve switched to the AimPoint system. It changed everything.”
Aldridge, who was 55th at Silverado, and Varner are low on the totem pole, but they’re still better off than 22-year-old Ollie Schniederjans, who turned pro after he finished 12th at the British Open at St. Andrews.
“No status,” Schniederjans, a Georgia Tech alum, said at the Frys.com, where he, too, finished 48th while playing on a sponsor’s exemption. He will get seven such exemptions this season to try and earn as much as the 150th man on the PGA Tour money list in 2014-15, or $578,571. (He pocketed $14,914 at the Frys.com) If Schniederjans succeeds, he’ll get special temporary membership on Tour for 2016, giving him unlimited exemptions and a chance to secure his card by earning enough to crack the top 125 on the money list. He’ll have plenty of competition.
“Guys who have just made their card, they’ve got tons of exuberance, and they’re excited to go,” 2013 U.S. Open champ Justin Rose said at the Frys.com. “I think probably there’s a lot of nervous energy, anticipation. Guys can get off to a good start and get their confidence rolling and set up a fantastic year.”
Last season, Exhibit A was Tony Finau, who had four top 15s in five fall starts and went on to win more than $2 million. This year? Meet Emiliano Grillo, a 23-year-old from Argentina who won at Silverado in his first start as a PGA Tour member. Grillo beat Kevin Na on the second hole of sudden death. Hello, Masters!
“It can also go the other way for a lot of guys,” Rose added. “That anticipation, that nervous energy — they try too hard and things can go south pretty quickly. To find that balance, that’s what separates the guys who are going to make it and the guys who don’t.”
Aldridge, 31, missed 14 of 17 cuts in his first crack at the Tour. He’s hoping his tidier work on the greens pays dividends.
As a rookie, Varner — an East Carolina graduate and the second African-American to get his Tour card since Tiger Woods in 1996 — expects more distractions than he saw on the Web.com circuit.
Schniederjans finished 22nd in his first start as a pro, at the Canadian Open in July. The following week he was 15th at the Quicken Loans National. He is among the extravagantly talented high school Class of 2011, a group that includes, among others, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Paul Dunne, who was tied for the lead through three rounds of the British Open.
Nice pedigree — but Schniederjans still has to live up to it.
“I’ve got to keep working,” he said. “Jordan’s been doing it for a longer time. He started at 2; I started at 12. He’s got another level of control, he’s at another level with the putter, and he’s at a whole other level of competitive maturity since he’s been doing it longer. He’s the best in the world. I’m just trying to get status.”
Keeping it is no easy task, either.