Hidden gems

Each spring with the regularity of blooming azaleas and busting brackets, we fill this space with a starry-eyed list of potential Nationwide Tour world beaters.

Consider it golf’s equivalent of “American Idol,” without all the annoying auditions and even more annoying Simon Cowell. This year, however, the search for potential play makers has a “Where’s Waldo” feel to it, due, in large part, to an exodus of the circuit’s most high-profile players last season.

Call it a talent drain. A clean sweep of the circuit’s upper crust that started last November in Houston at the season finale when 22 players received their PGA Tour cards, and finished a month later at Q-School in the California desert.

How deep was the ’06 class? Consider the group’s collective resume: 12 of last season’s 22 Nationwide Tour card earners are currently inside the top 100 on the PGA Tour money list – including Jeff Quinney (14th) and Boo Weekley (25th) – and many of the top players who didn’t earn cards via the Nationwide money list cashed in at Q-School and are also quickly adjusting to life in the “Bigs.”

“Every year the classes just seem to get better and the 2006 class is off to a really good start,” said Bill Calfee, president of the Nationwide Tour. “It’s not developmental golf and it’s not the minor leagues. They’ve all got the game (for the PGA Tour), we just don’t have room for them (on the PGA Tour).”

That’s not to say, however, that this year’s Nationwide Tour is bereft of talent. It just takes a GPS and a deck of tarot cards to find them.

• Jason Day, the smiling Australian youngster with the “A frame” and the “A-list” smile, could quickly become the year’s most-watched player, but he’ll have to make the most of his chances. A poor Q-School (T-119) will limit his starts early, but expect to see Day – who spent his short off-season recovering from a minor car crash in Australia and snowboarding in Japan – on a leaderboard by June.

• The only thing you need to know about Peter Tomasulo is that among his regular threesome when he’s at home at Virginia Country Club – a group that includes PGA Tour players John Merrick and John Mallinger – he regularly collects the most bottle caps (there is no betting at Virginia CC). Watching Merrick and Mallinger earn Tour cards last year is all the motivation Tomasulo needs.

• Let’s call Kyle Thompson my Baltimore Orioles. One of the Nationwide Tour’s most mechanically sound players, Thompson has been among our players to watch for the last two seasons and each time he’s failed to crack the Tour’s grass ceiling. Why will this year be different? Experience should help and, after a confidence-building tie for 25th at Pebble Beach, the rest of the season should be a stress-free breeze.

• Brock Mackenzie could easily be the year’s most naturally talented player on the Nationwide Tour, and – to the chagrin of sports psychologist and defensive line coaches everywhere – the nicest. Mackenzie’s biggest challenge will be to “mean up.” O.D. Vincent, UCLA’s golf coach who recruited Mackenzie while he was at Washington, plans to platoon with Mackenzie’s father as caddie, which should help keep the youngster focused and, hopefully, nasty.

• Before we dismiss Ricky Barnes as another U.S. Amateur champion whose star has faded, consider how close he came last year to a Tour card (he finished about $6K shy in Nationwide earnings and crashed with a closing 74 at Q-School). Barnes is a bomber whose simply gotten brighter.

• While Dustin Bray may not have the credentials of a world-beater – in eight Nationwide Tour events, he has made the cut once, and has as many rounds in the 80s as he does in the 60s – he is a natural talent who lacks only maturity.

• Mini-tour regular Marc Turnesa has plenty of seasoning and made a statement with his season-opening tie for fifth at the Movistar Panama Championship.

• We’re big fans of long-shot specials because they usually make the best stories. Which is why long-hitting John Kimbell makes our list. The former baseball player, who didn’t take up golf until his early 20s, cites making it through to the final stage of Q-School as his biggest thrill and had a hard time deciding between his job at UPS and a career in pro golf. Imagine the juicy irony if a former UPS man was to ever win the FedEx Cup.

• Speaking of good stories, Michael Sims could run a close second to Kimbell if things continue to fall into place. Exhibit A: At the Jacob’s Creek Open after an opening-round 67, the Bermuda native was Carl Spackler-esque in his assessment of his career: “I need this. I went from playing on the South American tour for $25,000 purses to this. It’s like playing for $1 million,” Sims said.

• Although he needs the pressure of showing up on this list about as much as another Q-School collapse, it has to be Tim O’Neal’s time. O’Neal, whose Q-School misses are the stuff of legend, has a sound swing and plenty of experience. Confidence, and with it a PGA Tour card, can’t be that far behind.

• Curtis Malm, a former Chicago-area assistant pro, is another dark horse with just enough talent and ambiguity to make the jump from pro shop to PGA Tour.

• The final player to watch is actually a tournament, the circuit’s new Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational that will be played in July on the Scarlet Course at Ohio State University. The tournament will be something of a showcase event for Nationwide, which is based out of Columbus, and – more importantly – a much-needed stepping stone for young talent.

Along with the Nationwide Tour’s top earners, the reigning U.S. Amateur and NCAA individual champions along with the NCAA Player of the Year and the entire All-America first team will be offered exemptions into the Columbus stop.

“With OSU and Nationwide involved, it seemed like we could be a little creative with our eligibility,” Calfee said. “The more people you can give opportunities to is always a positive.”

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