The season is heating up, and several members of the 2009 PGA Tour rookie class have separated themselves from the rest of their peers. But no one has earned the right to smell the azaleas in April. With four weeks remaining and Tiger back in the fold, time is running out.
In lieu of Augusta National extending an invitation (unlikely), it will take a top-50 world ranking or one tournament victory for a rookie to garner a spot in the field at the Masters. Given the lack of volatility in the world rankings — Tiger’s still No. 1 after playing one event in eight months — it’s almost impossible for a first-year player to crack the threshold in such short order. So, over the next several weeks we’ll find out if a freshman from this list, or one of the other 18 rookies on Tour, can win an event and pluck a tee time at Augusta.
In the meantime, here are the top 10 PGA Tour rookies in order of 2009 prize winnings.
The Big Four
1. Scott Piercy
Events: 6, Cuts Made: 5, Top 25: 5, Top 10: 2, Wins: 0, Money: $574,906
Piercy started the season with a flurry, and his tie for sixth at the FBR Open was enough to snatch our Rookie of the Month honors away from Simpson. After taking a couple weeks off in February to recharge, Piercy got back into the thick of things with a T20 finish in Cancun. A sweet little Sunday 65 elevated Piercy into a tie for fifth at last week’s Honda, and served notice that he intends to be a leaderboard fixture. With a powerful, upright swing and five top-25s in six events, the 30-year-old Las Vegas native is the early bet for Rookie of Year honors.
2. Jeff Klauk
Events: 7, Cuts Made: 7, Top 25: 3, Top 10: 1, Wins: 0, Money: $544,265
Klauk has established himself as the group’s cut-making machine. Last weekend at the Honda, he showed he also has the game to play his way into contention — and the nerves to stay there. His one over 71 on Sunday wasn’t always pretty, but it was enough for a fourth-place finish and $268,800.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the 31-year-old hadn’t finished outside the top 100 on the Nationwide Tour money list since 2002. Clearly he knows how to play for a paycheck. If Klauk can continue to dent the leaderboards and hold up under the Sunday spotlight, he could easily be in the ROY discussion at season’s end.
3. James Nitties
Events: 7, Cuts Made: 4, Top 25: 3, Top 10: 2, Wins: 0, Money: $434,644
In two months on tour the former Big Break contestant has shown he’s much more than just a TV star — or a good quote. (To recap, Nitties once listed his hobbies as clubs, girls and movies, and admitted that his career slowed because he partied too hard.) He’s been near the Sunday lead in two events, and that experience should serve him well for the rest of the season.
Networks are clearly beginning to notice the colorful Aussie; Golf Channel gave Nitties the Tiger treatment during the opening round of the Mayakoba, tracking him around the course for virtually every shot. (He responded with a sublime 66.) If Nitties can continue to get himself into contention, it could make for great TV — and even better press conferences.
4. Webb Simpson
Events: 6, Cuts Made: 4, Top 25: 3, Top 10: 2, Wins: 0, Money: $401,894
It’s hard to imagine the 23-year-old Simpson getting off to a hotter start in his debut season. It all started with a 66 in the opening round of the Sony Open, his first event as a card-carrying member of the PGA Tour. That opener also kicked a string of 11-straight rounds under par, which resulted in two top-10 finishes: T-9 at the Sony and T5 at the Bob Hope.
In January he told GOLF.com that one of his goals was to win Rookie of the Year. He’s now experiencing his first mini-slump. After taking a couple of weeks off after missing his first cut of the season at the AT&T, Simpson returned last week at the Honda. He once again missed the cut and fell out of the top spot on the rookie earnings list. We still see no reason the Wake Forest grad won’t quickly bounce back and resume his standing as one of this season’s elite rookies.
Best of the Rest
5. Bill Lunde
Events: 7, Cuts Made: 3, Top 25: 2, Top 10: 1, Wins: 0, Money: $320,028
The one-time salesman with his own fascinating backstory has enjoyed a charmed start to his PGA career. A T6 finish at Pebble Beach coupled with a T14 at the Bob Hope will go a long way toward keeping the 33-year-old out of cubicle life for the foreseeable future.
6. Aron Price
Events: 5, Cuts Made: 3, Top 25: 1, Top 10: 1, Wins: 0, Money: $162,423
Another Aussie cracks the top 10. Price was quietly grinding through the season’s early slate before a closing-round 66 catapulted him into a tie for sixth place at the Mayakoba. In his only win on the Nationwide Tour last year Price made up a four-shot deficit in the final round and prevailed in a playoff. Perhaps we’re witnessing the development of a future Sunday assassin.
7. Marc Leishman
Events: 5, Cuts Made: 4, Top 25: 1, Top 10: 0, Wins: 0, Money: $148,477
Stop us if you’ve heard this one: an Australian rookie is off to a fast start in his Tour career. Leishman’s best event to date was the Sony Open, where a sterling Sunday 65 propelled him in a tie for 12th. His MC at the Mayakoba was his first of the year.
8. Spencer Levin
Events: 5, Cuts Made: 3, Top 25: 1, Top 10: 0, Wins: 0, Money: $144,894
The former All-American from the University of New Mexico has been marked for greatness ever since the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, where he finished a stunning T13 to run away with low-amateur honors. So far this season his best finish is T14 at the AT&T. Look for that number to improve soon.
9. David Mathis
Events: 6, Cuts Made: 6, Top 25: 0, Top 10: 0, Wins: 0, Money: $79,611
The 34-year-old from Winston-Salem, N.C., has quietly made six cuts in six events, but his best finish is just a tie for 27th at the Honda. If he is able to keep playing on weekends, a breakthrough seems almost inevitable.
10. Casey Wittenberg
Events: 6, Cuts Made: 4, Top 25: 0, Top 10: 0, Wins: 0, Money: $73,981
Another hyped rookie who’s been flying under the radar so far, Wittenberg tied for 32nd at the Honda for his best finish of the season. Don’t be surprised if it launches a hot streak from the fiery Oklahoma State graduate.