- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2008

The face of the Nationwide Tour has a few more lines on it these days.

Golf’s Class AAA league used to tout itself as the tour of tomorrow’s stars. But this season’s version of the Nationwide circuit looks more like the home of yesterday’s hopefuls.

Thanks to its recent run of twentysomething champions, the PGA Tour boasts a younger scrum of winners this season (average age of 31.77) than its supposedly less mature sibling (32.18).

That’s an odd development for a tour that was largely created to help talented young players sharpen their skills and adjust to life on the road away from the ultra-stress and scrutiny of the PGA Tour.

“That doesn’t really surprise me at all. I think this tour is a little older than the PGA Tour right now,” said 31-year-old Scott Gutschewski, who was four strokes off the lead at 4 under after yesterday’s first round of the Prince George’s County Open. “There are a lot of veterans out here. I’d say more than half of the field is made up of guys with significant PGA Tour experience.”

In fact, the Nationwide Tour always has been populated by former PGA Tour regulars looking to regain their playing privileges to the big show. At the end of the season, the top-25 players on the Nationwide Tour’s money list earn PGA Tour cards for the following season.

But for more than 50 of the 144 players gathered this week at Country Club at Woodmore, that wouldn’t be a novel experience. This week’s field boasts 18 former PGA Tour winners, including two Kemper Open champions - Grant Waite (1993) and Tom Scherrer (2000).

The 37-year-old Scherrer graduated from the Nationwide Tour last year via a 20th-place finish on the money list. But that doesn’t equate to fully exempt status on the PGA Tour. Scherrer is 40th on the PGA Tour’s conditional list, meaning he’s in line behind last year’s top 125 finishers on the PGA Tour’s money list, plus approximately 35 other players (major champions, champions from the past two years, medical extensions, etc.) who have higher status.

Add it all up and Scherrer ranks roughly 200th in the PGA Tour’s tournament entry pecking order. Given that the standard field size for a PGA Tour event less sponsor’s exemptions is 150 players, Scherrer needs nearly 50 players with superior status to take a pass on an event for him to get a spot in the field. With the PGA Tour in Fort Worth this week for the exclusive Colonial Invitational, which has a field of just 125 players, Scherrer either had to take the week off or report to Woodmore.

“I always enjoy coming back to this area, but that’s not why I’m here this week,” Scherrer said of his return to the area of his lone PGA Tour victory. “I just needed to get some competitive rounds in. I’ve only gotten into seven PGA Tour events [of 22] so far this season, which is a little frustrating, primarily because it makes it hard to get into a rhythm. But it usually gets a little easier to get into fields after the U.S. Open when guys start taking more time off.”

Without the Nationwide Tour, players with conditional status like Scherrer would have few options other than frustration. For that reason, the Nationwide Tour is as much a safety net for veterans as a developmental stage for young players.

Only two players on the Nationwide Tour’s current top-25 list are under age 25. And only 22-year-old Texan Colt Knost, who won two weeks ago at the Fort Smith Classic but isn’t in the field this week, rates as a possible prodigy.

But even in a season in which the Nationwide Tour’s balance seems to lean toward aging journeyman, promising prospects aren’t hard to find.

Two such players surged up the leader board at Woodmore late yesterday afternoon; 26-year-old Salisbury native Andy Bare and 28-year-old Matt Weibring both posted 66s to share the second position behind Jeff Klauk (64).

Bare, who moved from the Eastern Shore to Pinehurst, N.C., at age 5, has been playing the Tar Heel Tour and only got into this week’s field by surviving a six-for-three playoff at Little Bennett Golf Course on Monday.

Weibring has taken a slightly more conventional route to the top of the board. The son of longtime PGA Tour veteran D.A. Weibring, Matt is perhaps the hottest player on the Nationwide Tour. Weibring played in the final group in each of the past two weeks, posting a pair of top-five starts.

“I’m becoming more and more comfortable with playing well,” said Weibring, who split time between basketball and golf until he attended Georgia Tech on a golf scholarship. “My freshman year at Georgia Tech was my first full year of golf, so I wasn’t all burned out like a lot of younger guys. I showed up there hungry to work at it, and I’ve been gradually improving since. …

“I always thought I had the athleticism to compete at a high level, but my problem was always getting in my own way. Hopefully I’m starting to solve that issue. That’s what this tour is all about.”

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