Originally created 04/24/04

Tour still offers shot to compete



McCORMICK, S.C. - A beautiful day on a beautiful golf course in a beautiful retirement haven might seem like the culmination of a golfer's fantasy.

But the young men breaking par on Monticello Golf Club this weekend are hungrier than that. Like the men who hang out in Hooters restaurants and dare to dream big, the guys who hang around the NGA/Hooters Tour lust after bigger game. Yet it's not women they ogle, it's other golfers.

Specifically, it's former Hooters Tour money leaders Chad Campbell and Zach Johnson, who established the step-by-step career plan for the contenders in the Kandy Waters Memorial Classic at Savannah Lakes Village. Or it's former members Shaun Micheel and Ben Curtis, who have raised the bar to absurd heights.

These young men aren't as far away from glory as it might seem - and they know it.

"The top 10 out here, they've got the game to win anywhere," said Scott Piercy, a Las Vegas native who stands at 7-under through two rounds at Monticello. "They just might not have the heads, yet."

"It's a great tour," said Nick Cassini, the former Georgia golfer keeping his game in shape at Savannah Lakes this week before heading back to the Nationwide Tour. "The competition at the top is outstanding. It compares to the Nationwide Tour at the top."

There was a time when statements like that might have sounded ridiculous, when the Hooters Tour raised more snickers about its name than respect for its game. But the roll call of former Hooters players leaving their mark on the PGA Tour keeps growing longer and stronger. Last week's MCI Heritage winner, Stewart Cink, played out here. Last year's PGA Championship winner Micheel once called the Hooters home. The only pro tournament Curtis has won other than the British Open was a Hooters event.

But it's Campbell and Johnson who truly represent the best this tour has to offer. Both of them led the Hooters Tour money list before going on to become Nationwide Tour players of the year. As a PGA Tour second-year player in 2003, Campbell came in second at the PGA, won the Tour Championship, then won the Bay Hill Invitational in March. Johnson posted his first rookie win at the BellSouth Classic three weeks ago and is tied for the lead in the Shell Houston Open.

"You only have to look at the guys recently - Curtis, Campbell, Zach Johnson - to see you have the chance to become successful," said Simon Nash, the Australian tied for the lead at 9-under through two rounds.

A quick pass through the parking lot shows just how different the Hooters Tour players are from the PGA Tour elite. There are no courtesy cars filling every space near the clubhouse. Instead there are mostly modest sedans with clothes racks in the back seats, bearing license plates from 21 different states as far away as Washington and Wyoming and two Canadian provinces. The field of 168 includes Aussies and Englishmen and even one Palestinian.

The NGA/Hooters Tour is the third largest men's golf tour in the country and some might argue that it's the third best golf tour in the world. If the Nationwide Tour is Class AAA, this is at least the equivalent of AA. Unlike some mini-tours, the Hooters events are always four rounds with deep fields playing the same course, and the players walk and often carry their own bags.

"The biggest thing is it gives you an atmosphere like a tour event," said Augusta's John Engler. "It's four days, 36-hole cut, you've got to shoot low, you have to walk and it has a tour championship at the end of the season. Plus you've got to learn how to travel."

The Hooters seeks out smaller environments such as McCormick, where the locals tend to appreciate having something semi-big in town. The Kandy Waters event gets high marks for the quality of the course, the welcome atmosphere and the availability of private homes for about half of the field.

"Honestly, this is probably the best I've played in," said Cassini, a former Hooters Tour winner in Huntsville, Ala. "The course is great. The greens are perfect. The people couldn't be nicer."

The only thing missing are the roaring galleries and multimillion dollar purses.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 orscott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.