Friday, February 21, 2014

Ten Players to Watch out for on the NGA Tour in 2014

Top-tier Talent continues to Flock to the NGA Tour

(Myrtle Beach, S.C.) – While widely recognized as the #3 Men’s Professional Golf Tour in the United States, most regard the talent on the NGA Pro Golf Tour as second to none. In an age where other tours, outside of the US, are guaranteed spots into q school and major tour events, this past season it was the NGA Tour, once again, that proved to be the top place for professionals looking to develop their game and move up to golf’s highest levels. Even without guaranteed spots, the NGA Tour still had more players successfully navigate the Web.com Tour Qualifying Tournament with 32 past players finishing 42nd or better to earn exempt status including Medalist Zack Fischer, a 2013 NGA Tour Pro Series member. In fact 6 of the top 11 Pro Series members on the 2013 NGA Tour money list advanced their careers with Player of the Year Jon Curran, Rookie of the Year Blayne Barber, Utah Championship event exemption winner Matt Hendrix, and 2010 co-Rookie of the Year Jonathan Randolph earning exempt status, Reno-Tahoe Open event exemption winner Justin Lower earning conditional status, and Peter Malnati moving up in-season and eventually to the PGA TOUR, all in the same year!

The NGA Tour also led the way, once again, with more major event exemptions than any other developmental tour in golf. In fact, in 2013, the NGA Tour became the first developmental tour to receive event exemptions into two separate PGA TOUR events, the Sanderson Farms Championship and the Reno-Tahoe Open (for the second consecutive year). Ryan Blaum, the eventual Latino America money title winner, was awarded the tour’s exemption into the Sanderson Farms Championship for winning the NGA’s Magnolia Bluffs Casino Classic while Player of the Year runner-up Justin Lower was awarded the tour’s exemption into the Reno-Tahoe Open for being the tour’s leading money winner at the time of the event. Other event exemptions received by the NGA Tour in 2013, with the players awarded the exemptions in parenthesis, include the BMW Charity Pro-Am (Riley Wheeldon), Air Capital Classic (Brandon Brown/Ken Looper), Utah Championship (Matt Hendrix), Price Cutter Charity Championship (Blake Trimble), and Knoxville News Sentinel Open (Derek Rende).

With only a limited number of positions available on golf’s top tours each year, some of the best golfers in the world compete on the NGA Tour week in and week out, developing their game and looking for their opportunity to move up, whether it be through q school or a major event exemption. Keegan Bradley, Zach Johnson, Bubba Watson, Stewart Cink, Jim Furyk, David Toms, Tom Lehman, and John Daly all won on the NGA Tour before becoming Major Champions and household names. TOUR winners Scott Stallings, Russell Henley, Scott Piercy, Ted Potter Jr, Mark Wilson, Michael Thompson, and many many more competed on the NGA Tour to prepare for their future successes.

Inevitably there will be several members of the 2014 NGA Tour Pro Series who will find the same success as the NGA Tour alumni before them, with many hoping for the same expediency found by Malnati this past year. The 2014 NGA Tour Pro Series membership is made up of countless college All-Americans, All-Nicklaus and Palmer Cup team members, US Amateur, State Amateur and Open Champions, many NGA Tour veterans and past winners, and many who have played at golf’s highest levels. We could write a book profiling this year’s membership and their accomplishments but, unfortunately, we have to narrow our list down to 10 (or at least as close to 10 as we could get) that we suggest you keep your eye on during the 2014 Pro Series season. This year’s list includes two past Players of the Year, a leading Player of the Year candidate, a Rookie of the Year, an almost Rookie of the Year, a potential Rookie of the Year, a Big Break winner, a Loudmouth winner, a Money Title winner, two Yellow Jackets, two Spartans, a Zip, and a Pirate (Arrrgh!). Without further ado, here is our list of 10 players, or, um, 13 to 14 players, to watch out for on the 2014 NGA Tour Pro Series:

1. Chris Ross (Eastern Michigan; Ontario, Canada) – Why is Canada’s best playing the NGA Tour? One reason; he doesn’t expect to be here long. Ross is one of the hottest golfers in the world right now, dominating the NGA Tour Winter Series with 3 back to back wins on his way to earning the series’ money title. Ross has paid attention to the number of NGAers who have moved up in-season the past few years and, with the NGA Tour’s history of securing event exemptions, and a schedule that makes competing in major tour qualifiers convenient, he plans on being one of them. With the way he is playing right now, we have to agree.

2a. Brandon Brown (Eastern Kentucky; Shelbyville, KY) –After not missing a cut for almost two years, Brown missed 3 of his first 4 cuts of the 2013 season. How does one of the all-time NGA Tour greats respond? By winning the 5th event, that’s how. The 2011 & 2012 NGA Tour money title winner, and 2012 NGA Tour Player of the Year, would add 3 more top 10 finishes before finishing 9th on the final money list. Brown, who went from “Boom Boom” to “Big Daddy” with the birth of his first child in 2013, has had 6 wins the past 3 years and should be all caught up on his sleep by now.

2b. Jeff Corr (Jacksonville State; Longwood, FL) – Corr and Brown have dominated the NGA like few before them. In fact it was Corr who wrestled the 2011 NGA Tour Player of the Year away from Brown. Corr’s two wins and, more importantly, eleven top 5 or better finishes helped him narrowly edge Brown for the award. Corr is fast approaching legendary status as he nears Chad Campbell’s NGA career earnings record of $776, 976. The only thing that could prevent Corr from passing Campbell is if the veteran makes his move back up to the Web.com Tour. He’s done it before and, with 13 career NGA wins, he’ll have plenty of volunteers to help him pack.

2c. Matt Harmon (Michigan State; Grand Rapids, Mich.) – Harmon has also been back and forth between the Web.com and NGA Tours since winning the NGA Tour money title in 2010. An All-Big Ten performer at Michigan State, Harmon has found success at golf’s highest level finishing T52 in the 2009 Buick Invitational. After being awarded the NGA Tour event exemption into the Stonebrae Championship in 2012, Harmon made the most of that opportunity, tying the course record final day, finishing runner-up in the event, and securing full status for the remainder of the season. Harmon has had to battle ailments the past couple of years and now that his health has returned, should once again rise to the top.

3. Trent Whitekiller (Oklahoma State; Sallisaw, Okla.) – Whitekiller lost out to Blayne Barber for Rookie of the Year honors in 2013, not because of his play but because of a rule stating the player must be in his first full season of professional golf. Whitekiller spent most of his first full pro season chasing qualifiers but now, with his 1st full NGA Tour season under his belt, Whitekiller may have earned a different NGA title; Best Player on tour without a win, “yet”, yet being the operative word. It would take 8 events before Whitekiller would post a finish outside the top 20 in 2013, with six coming inside the top 10 (including one runner-up). Aside from a win, the 4 players who finished in front of him on the 2013 money list have one other thing in common, they all earned Web.com status for this season. We expect Whitekiller to join the club, on both counts, sooner rather than later.

4. Seth Fair (Indianapolis; Brownsburg, Ind.) – Many would’ve tapped Fair as the top player on tour without an NGA Tour win, if we had taken a vote before this year. However, the 2013 Indiana State Open Champion quickly took his name out of the running by winning the inaugural NGA Loudmouth Central Florida Classic in February. Fair finished 7th on last season’s money list following a runner-up finish in Gainesville and 6 top 10’s of his own. The former Indy Greyhound is sure to find himself leading the pack on many occasions this year as he’s on the fast track to golf’s highest levels.

5. Isaac Sanchez (Hawaii; Folsom, Cal.) – “Be. Do. Have.” is the motto Sanchez lives by on and off the course. The reality tv star of Golf Channel’s Big Break series is reversing Horace Greeley’s advice of “Go west young man, go west” and bringing his game east to compete against the best. Sanchez is known to NGA fans as a final four participant on Big Break Greenbrier where he competed against NGA Tour members Rick Cochran and eventual winner Mark Silvers. Not to be outdone, Sanchez returned to the show in 2013 as part of Big Break NFL and would not be denied, winning the competition with his teammates; Emily Talley and Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice. Sanchez has earned a reputation for being ultra-competitive and unshakeable, traits his fellow NGA Tour competitors would be well advised to remember.

6. Ken Looper (New Orleans/LSU; Mandeville, La.) – Golf can be a game of inches and no one knows that better than Looper, the 2012 NGA Tour co-Rookie of the Year. While most people know about NGAer Peter Malnati’s move up in-season to the Web.com, most don’t realize just how close Looper came to making the move to the PGA TOUR. Looper narrowly holed out from the fairway on 18 final day at the Zurich Classic, where he was in contention all week, and ultimately finished T21. He would then qualify into the Sanderson Farms Championship and finish T35 putting his TOUR earnings at over $73,000. Had his Zurich approach shot just moved an inch there’s a good chance he would’ve been gone for the rest of the season due to his earnings. Looper will surely have his eye on the big prize this year as he looks to join his college teammates, John Peterson and Andrew Loupe, on TOUR.

7. Jack Newman (Michigan State; Des Moines, Iowa) – It’s taken the 2008 US Am Publinks Champ a few years to get out of his own way, but it looks like 2014 could be his year. The former Spartan had moderate success on the NGA Tour before the 2013 season but Newman put it all together in 2013, posting 7 top 10’s and back to back fourth place finishes to end the season. His “turning of the corner” didn’t go unnoticed as Newman was named the NGA Tour’s Most Improved Player. Deadly accurate off the tee, and with the length to match, Newman is sure to remain one of the top players on the NGA, if not the world, this upcoming season.

8. Chris Wolfe (Armstrong Atlantic; Warner Robins, Ga.) – Every top 10 list needs a Pirate and, Arrrr, who better than the former Armstrong Atlantic star who had 11 top 25 finishes on the NGA Tour in 2013. The big Georgian’s game really came around this past season as Wolfe finished 12th on the season ending money list. He found himself in contention weekly, except for a 3 tournament stretch in early April. Wolfe finished hot, placing inside the top 20 in 5 of his final 6 events, including 4 straight to end the year. If he starts this season the way he finished up last year, NGA Tour members would be wise to lookout for Wolfe this season.

9. Blake Sattler (Akron; New Philadelphia, Ohio) – If you’re going to make a top 10 list you’ve got to include the player who was better than everyone else the last time you had an event. That player is Blake Sattler, winner of last season’s Pro Series finale, the Woodcreek Classic. The Members Club at Woodcreek is one of the top tracks on the NGA and a win there is no fluke. A former All-Mac team member, Sattler was known for setting records during his time at Akron. Now that he’s tasted success in the professional ranks, could this be the kick start to something bigger and better for the former Zip? We believe so and we expect to hear a lot from Sattler in 2014.

10. James White (Georgia Tech; Acworth, Ga.) & Shun Yat “Jason” Hak (Georgia Tech; Lake Mary, Fla.) – The former Georgia Tech stars both had astounding amateur careers. White was a three-time All-ACC selection, two-time All-American, Palmer Cup team member, and Byron Nelson Award Winner as the top college senior golfer in 2012. Hak finished his junior career as the number one ranked player in the world. He broke Sergio Garcia’s record as the youngest player to make a European Tour cut when he did so at the 2008 Hong Kong Open. He then tied for 46th in the 2011 Hong Kong Open. Now both have found professional success, a lot sooner than most. White didn’t miss a cut after joining the NGA Tour in 2013. He lost in a playoff to eventual Player of the Year Jon Curran at the Honda Powersports Classic in Florence. He would then get his first professional win two events later at the NGA Tour’s Orange County National Crooked Cat event. Hak made his professional debut in that same Honda Powersports Classic, where he unfortunately missed the cut. He would not be deterred however posting a top 10 finish in his next start at Falcons Fire and then grabbing his first professional win at the final event of this year’s NGA Tour Winter Series at Black Bear in Eustis, Fla. It would not surprise us at all to see this dynamic Georgia Tech duo take home Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year honors, in some form or fashion, this 2014 season.

Others to Watch for in 2014; Tyson Alexander (Florida), Matt Atkins (USC Aiken), Seth Blann (Kentucky), Dominic Bozzelli (Auburn), Ryan Brehm (Michigan State), Marc Bussieres (South Alabama), Thomas Campbell (Minnesota), Lee Chaney (Moorehead State), Paul Cormack (McLennan), Kelvin Day (Charleston Southern), John Duthie (Towson State), Brendon Ehlers (Utah State), Mathieu Gingras (Universite Laval), Stuart Gold (Utah Am), Wesley Graham (Florida State), Hunter Green (Middle Tennessee State), Mitchell Gregson (Kansas State), Kevin Hall (Ohio State), Travis Hampshire (Purdue), Hunter Hamrick (Alabama), Joseph Harrison (San Diego), CD Hockersmith (Ball State), David Holmes (Tennessee), JC Horne (North Florida), Greg Huxman (Mississippi State), Freddie Janneck (Southern Miss), Hudson Johnson (Vanderbilt), Jake Katz (Binghamton), Daniel Keeton (Louisiana Monroe), Travis Klutts (Midwestern State), Immu
Korvenmaa (Gardner Webb), Michael Lavery (Cal Irvine), Major Manning (Augusta State), Garth McGee (Old Dominion), Mac McLaughlin (Virginia), Andrew Medley (Auburn), CG Mercatoris (Robert Morris), Mike Midgette (Coastal Carolina), Colin Neeman (Lindenwood), Scott Newton (Colorado State), Brant Peaper (Inidana), Derek Plucienski (Southern Miss), Zechariah Potter (Wichita State), Clayton Rask (Minnesota), Alex Redfield (Ohio State), Crawford Reeves (Clemson), Brian Richey (Florida Southern), Michael Schachner (Duke), Mark Side (London, England), Ben Silverman (Florida Atlantic), Ted Smith (North Carolina), Steven Smith (Western Carolina), Matt Stanchina (Florida), Daniel Stanley (Newberry),  Ricky Stimets (North Alabama), Scott Strohmeyer (Alabama), Sebastian Szirmak (Louisville), Kyle Thomas (Butler), Shawn Tipton (Morehead State), Colin Van Es (Seton Hall), Aaron Watkins (Cumberlands), Michael Welch (Johnson & Wales), Elliott Wickenden (Belmont), Patrick Wilkes-Krier (Ball State), Nicholas Wilson (Missouri), & Wesley Yates (Florida A&M).

For more information on the National Golf Association or the NGA Pro Golf Tour, visit www.ngatour.com, call 800-992-8748, or email Player Administrator Joy Johnson at Joy@NGATour.com.

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