A slightly less global Nationwide Tour kicks off its 22nd season late this month in Panama, with the tour again featuring a strong presence in the Southeast, including two stops in Georgia.
For the first time since 2001, the tour will not visit Australia and New Zealand to start its season, with tournaments in Panama and Colombia now serving as the season-opening duo.
The tour makes its first American stop in late March in Louisiana, and makes a two-week swing through Georgia in late April and early May, playing in Valdosta and Athens.
This will be the fifth year the Nationwide Tour has played at Valdosta’s Kinderlou Forest GC. The South Georgia Classic sports one of the larger purses on tour ($625,000) and will again be televised on the Golf Channel. The tournament is scheduled for April 28-May 1.
The following week, the tour returns to Athens for a sixth year, with Stadion serving as title sponsor for the second year of the UGA Classic. The event was held for four years at nearby Jennings Mill under the sponsorship of the Athens Regional Foundation. After just one year on the highly regarded UGA course, the event has become one of the more prominent events on the Nationwide Tour. This year’s dates are May 5-8.
In addition to the two tournaments in Georgia, the Nationwide Tour also will play twice each in the Carolinas (Greenville, S.C. and Raleigh N.C.) and Tennessee (Knoxville and Chattanooga) before closing out its season in Jacksonville, Fla. and Charleston, S.C., which will host the Tour Championship for a third straight year
Because of the loss of the two tournaments in New Zealand and Australia, along with events in Canada and Arkansas, the tour has 26 tournaments on its 2011 schedule, down three from 2010 and the first time in tour history there will be fewer than 28 tournaments played. The lone addition to the schedule is a stop in Kansas City in August.
This will be the ninth season Nationwide has sponsored the tour, with the insurance company’s sponsorship ending after the 2012 season.
This year’s Georgia contingent on the Nationwide Tour is among the smallest in the tour’s two-plus decades. Barely a dozen players with ties to the state enjoy status for 2011, with only a handful likely to be able to play full schedules.
Heading up the list of Georgians on the 2011 Nationwide Tour are veterans Paul Claxton of St. Simons Island and Scott Dunlap of Duluth.
Claxton, a native of Vidalia and former UGA golf team member, will be playing his 13th season on the Nationwide Tour, along with four years on the PGA Tour. The 43-year-old Claxton has played on one of those two tours every year since 1995. He was the first player in tour history to earn more than $1 million, and currently stands third in career earnings, with a decent chance to regain the No. 1 spot by the end of the season.
Consistency has been the hallmark of Claxton’s career, and he enjoyed another solid season in 2010, placing 42nd on the money list with $153,595. He notched five top 10s, including a near win in College Park, Md., the site of one of his two Nationwide Tour victories. In his 12 years on the Nationwide Tour, Claxton has finished below 61st in earnings just once, that coming in 2009 when he ended up 90th on the money list.
Dunlap, 47, was a member of the original Ben Hogan Tour in 1990, and will be playing on the Nationwide Tour for the 11th year, including the last nine in succession. Dunlap was a PGA Tour member for six years from 1996-2002, contending in both the Players and PGA Championship in 2000, when he finished 44th on the money list. Dunlap, who finished just one stroke out of a playoff in the 2004 BellSouth Classic after playing in a Monday qualifier, has two career Nationwide wins, the last coming in 2008. He was 76th in earnings last year despite leading the tour in greens in regulation, due primarily to struggles with his short game.
The most prominent newcomer on the tour this year is Alpharetta’s Roberto Castro, a recent Georgia Tech All-American. Castro will not be a Nationwide Tour rookie, having played 17 events over the last two season, including 12 in 2010. Midway through last season, Castro played his way into the tournament in Omaha in a Monday qualifier and tied for 19th to earn a spot in the event the next week in Wichita. He led that tournament most of the way before being edged out at the finish, and played respectably the rest of the way with four more finishes between 16th and 21st. In his half season, he placed second on the tour in birdies per round and third in scoring average.
Castro just missed finishing among the top 60 money winners, which would have earned him exempt status at the outset of the season, but at 62nd should be able to play a full schedule this year. Castro, who turned pro in the Summer of 2007, has won five times in 30 starts on the eGolf Tour and also won the 2009 Georgia Open.
Returning to the Nationwide Tour this season are former Georgia Bulldog Justin Bolli and ex-Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket Nicholas Thompson. Bolli, who grew up in Roswell, moved to South Carolina prior to the start of the 2010 season and suffered through the poorest year of his career. He finished a distant 215th on the PGA Tour money list, making just 3 of his first 22 cuts with no finish higher than 63rd before a solid showing in the season-ending Disney Classic. This will be Bolli’s fifth season on the Nationwide Tour, and in his last three, he has finished 9th, 8th and 11th in earnings to play his way to the PGA Tour, winning tournaments in each of those three years.
Thompson will be playing just his second season on the Nationwide Tour after competing on the PGA Tour four of the past five years. In his lone Nationwide season in 2007, Thompson was 6th in earnings, including a win in New Zealand. The 2005 Tech grad finished as high as 41st on the PGA Tour money list in 2008, but lost his status after falling to 153rd last year.
One of the mysteries in professional golf the last two seasons has been the struggles of recent ex-Georgia Bulldog Brendon Todd. A member of Georgia’s 2005 NCAA Championship team, Todd enjoyed an outstanding rookie season on the Nationwide Tour in ’08, winning a tournament in Utah and finishing 19th in earnings to move up the PGA Tour. He was enjoying a respectable first half to his rookie season, but since finishing 12th in Memphis in June of ’09, has not made a cut on either tour, missing 25 in a row. In that span, Todd has broken 70 just twice, but retains status thanks to his win in 2008. Todd, who has settled in Atlanta, also won on the eGolf and Hooters Tours in 2007.
The other former Nationwide Tour winner from Georgia is LaFayette native John Kimbell, who won in Valdosta as a rookie in 2007. This will be Kimbell’s fifth season on the tour, and he is coming off a disappointing showing in 2010, finishing 90th on the money list. A strong final two months enabled Kimbell to finish in the top 100, but he will have limited status after four straight years as an exempt player. Kimbell, 42, was 37th in earnings in 2007 and 49th in ’09, and is looking to continue his solid play to close out 2010, which included four top-20 finishes in his last seven starts.
Augusta’s Scott Brown was 70th in earnings as a rookie in 2010, missing most of the last two months of the season with an injury. Brown, 27, recorded three top 10s on the season, coming off an outstanding showing on the eGolf Tour in ’09, when he won three times and topped the tour’s money list with more than $140,000.
Ringgold’s Luke List placed 76th in his first full season on the Nationwide Tour after spending much of the year in the top 60. List got off to a strong start with a string of successful showings early in the season, but had only two profitable weeks over the final six months of the season. List, who enjoyed an outstanding amateur career, will need to get off to another strong start to maintain his status on the tour for 2011.
Albany’s Josh Broadaway narrowly retained limited status for 2011, placing 98th on last year’s money list. Broadaway has played six years on the Nationwide Tour, placing as high as 36th in earnings in 2008. Other than a tie for 3rd in Arkansas, Broadaway, 32, had only one other top-30 finish the entire season and will have limited status this year.
David Robinson of Sandersville will be a Nationwide Tour member for the third straight year, but faces another season in which he is unlikely to get more than a handful of starts. Robinson, 30, has made a total of just 12 starts the last two years, and after finishing near the bottom in the finals of PGA Tour qualifying for the third straight time, faces a similar fate this year. Robinson made 5 of 7 cuts last year, with his best finish a tie for 17th in Wichita. Robinson, a three-time All-American at Georgia College, was the Player of the Year on the eGolf Tour in 2008, winning three tournaments and leading in earnings by a sizeable margin.
Swainsboro’s Will Claxton will join his older brother Paul on the Nationwide Tour this year, but has only limited status after making it to the finals of Q-school. Claxton, who played his college golf at Auburn, has been a solid player on the Hooters Tour over the last five years.
Former Georgia Bulldog Erik Compton and Brent Delahoussaye, who grew up in Alpharetta, also earned non-exempt Nationwide Tour status by making it to the finals of Q-school. Compton played on the Nationwide Tour from 2002-07, contending for victories on a number of occasions, but has made a limited number of starts the past three years, most of them on the PGA Tour on sponsor exemptions.
Delahoussaye played his rookie season on the PGA Tour last year and made just 7 of 21 cuts, with his best finish a tie for 51st. The former Clemson golfer has made 45 starts on the Nationwide Tour the last four years, placing 79th in earnings in 2009.
Chris Kirk and Kevin Kisner, Todd’s teammates on Georgia’s 2005 NCAA Championship team, both will be on the PGA Tour this year after finishing among the top 25 on the Nationwide Tour last year.
Kirk, who grew up in Woodstock and now lives on St. Simons Island, had an outstanding season in 2010, winning twice and finished second in earnings. Kisner, who lives just outside Augusta in Aiken, S.C., also had a Nationwide win as a rookie last year and ended up 11th on the money list.