The Grand Strand-based National Golf Association Pro Series begins its 2014 schedule this week in Georgia with a field that is less than two-thirds full.
As tour organizers have discovered, the state of developmental tours in the United States is perhaps its most tenuous in the NGA’s 26-year history.
The tour, which was known as the NGA Hooters Tour from 1994-2011 before going without a title sponsor for now a third year, has backed off guaranteed purses for the first time in president/owner Robin Waters’ 15 years with the organization and possibly its history, and is exploring ways to increase membership and tournament fields, including possible consolidation with other tours.
“We’re having to make changes we’ve never considered,” Waters said. “This year we have to be more conservative until either consolidation or a sponsor comes on board or we get more members.”
The playing field for developmental tours has been changed by the PGA Tour’s foray into developmental golf at a level below its feeder Web.com Tour, even though that foray is outside U.S. borders.
The PGA Tour took over both the Tour de las Americas and Canadian Tour late in 2012 – renaming them the LatinoAmerica NEC Series and PGA Tour Canada – and created PGA Tour China for 2014. The three subsidiary tours have purses similar to those offered in recent years by the NGA Tour.
The tours have historically attracted the bulk of their players from their respective regions. But because they now feed the Web.com Tour through the top finishers on their money lists, U.S. players are chasing those international feeders.
Strand residents Zack Byrd, Roberto Diaz and Yoshio Yamamoto are among those who played in the season-opening LatinoAmerica Tour event in Colombia from Feb. 20-23.
“The developmental level right now is basically in some kind of negative transition period with what the PGA Tour has done,” Waters said. “Players are having a hard time determining what to play and where to play, and being able to afford places to play.”
Waters has found PGA Tour-affiliated circuits have been spreading mini-tour pros out, and many of those who fail to become exempt on one of them are left short on funding to join longstanding domestic tours because of the fees and expenses affiliated with their failed qualifying attempts.
An example of escalating expenses for touring pros: Q-School entry fees are approximately $1,750 for the LatinoAmerica Tour and $2,750 for the Canadian, and qualifying players must pay an additional $750 membership fee for full or conditional status on the LatinoAmerica and $450 for Canadian. In Canada, only 54 of 396 players who have paid to enter one of three upcoming Q-Schools will earn full status. Web.com and PGA Tour Monday qualifiers are essentially $450 each – less for members of PGA Tour affiliates.
The new PGA Tour structure has coincided with players already struggling to find sponsors and caught in a budget crunch because of a still-recovering economy.
“Even if they don’t qualify, their budget is not feasible to join another tour, never mind pay $800 to $1,000 entry fees per tournament,” Waters said. “I somewhat support what the PGA Tour is doing in trying to grow golf internationally, but unfortunately it’s off the backs of the U.S. developmental players, and you have to feel for them.
“… The PGA Tour didn’t just move the goal post, they took it completely off the field.”
Research by NGA Tour officials showed that about five years ago there were 900 to 1,000 players on mini-tours weekly in North America. They believe those numbers are down to between 600 to 700. “Players are having to seek out the most affordable ways to get on the Web.com Tour,” Waters said.
The regional eGolf Tour based in Charlotte, N.C., is accustomed to having more than 150 players in its season-opening event, but began the season last week with just 86 players at Palmetto Hall in Hilton Head Island.
The NGA Tour has approximately 100 players registered for its season-opener beginning Thursday at Spring Hill Country Club in Tifton, Ga. For the past couple decades, the first couple events of a season have been full fields of 168 complete with Monday qualifiers. The NGA is uncharacteristically accepting entries until 3 p.m. Tuesday this week.
Waters said he has spoken to an owner of every U.S. mini-tour in the past two months “about all kinds of options and ideas. We are working as hard as anyone in the business can to try to resolve the instability we’re all working in right now. If anyone can do it, we can. We’ve been at it 25 years.”
The NGA’s Pro Series annual membership fee is $2,000. Waters said he had 300 members last year who either paid or were awarded memberships through performance, and those numbers are down significantly this year.
In December, the NGA announced an 18-tournament Pro Series schedule with guaranteed purses of $175,000 in four events and between $130,000 and $150,000 in the other 14. Instead, its purses will be 100 percent of player entry fees in the first two events and 95 percent of entry fees in all following events until further notice – payouts that are extremely high for a tour without a title sponsor.
“That’s where we’re going to stay until we either get a sponsor or we reach 200 memberships, then we will reevaluate with our player board,” Waters said.
Waters said the tour’s secondary sponsors, generally in the form of product providers, are consistent with recent years and the lack of a title sponsor is “strictly the economy still. For things tours do at our level, more important than sponsorships is memberships. Unfortunately there’s no tour in the country that can run without memberships.”
Tour kicking off
The NGA Tour Pro Series schedule consists of 18 72-hole tournaments entirely in the Southeast, with the majority of events in Georgia and the Carolinas, along with two events in Florida and one each in Kentucky and Tennessee. Events in South Carolina are in Seneca and McCormick in April, and Elgin and a site TBA in August.
Waters believes the Pro Series’ greatest assets compared to its competition are policies patterned after the world’s major tours, including solely walking events.
The NGA also conducts 13-event Carolina Summer and Carolina Winter series on the Strand featuring 36- and 54-hole events, a winter series in Florida and a three-tournament Q-School Prep Series, and has partnered with the Great Lakes Tour, which is conducting 16 events this season in Ontario, Canada.
The tour continues to reward players with earned exemptions into three Web.com Tour events – the BMW Charity Pro-Am in Greenville, Knoxville News Sentinel Open and Price Cutter Charity Championship in Springfield, Mo. – and Web.com Tour Q-School expense reimbursements for a minimum of three players based on the season-ending money list.
Palmetto Open returns
The NGA Tour-run Palmetto State Open is returning for a second consecutive year and will be held at River Hills Golf & Country Club in Little River from Aug 5-7.
The tournament will again have a guaranteed winner’s check of $10,000. To give South Carolina players priority, only NGA Tour members and South Carolina-affiliated players – be them residents, natives or current/former collegiate players at state schools – will be able to register until 30 days prior to the event, which will include a pro-am on the eve of the first round.
“That way we have a chance to have a field that is primarily related to South Carolina,” Waters said.
The event will be capped at 90 players, and last year’s event attracted 65 for a purse of $33,800. The event is part of the Carolina Series, though the Pro Series is off that week so players from that tour may matriculate.
Only S.C. and NGA players were eligible to play last year, but the final 30 days of registration will be open to anyone. “We thought that it would grow, but I think our mission is to have a bigger event with a bigger purse and to do that we have to open it up to players from other states,” Waters said.
Potential demo day
Potential Golf instructor Dale Ketola is hosting a free TaylorMade Demo and Fitting Day by appointment only from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Farmstead Golf Links.
Ketola and a TaylorMade representative will conduct the fittings and display the advantages of “lofting up” in the company’s new technology, and there will be special pricing and giveaways. Call Ketola at 843-833-3332 to register.
The Steve Dresser Golf Academy at True Blue Plantation has had regular demo opportunities on Tuesday afternoons.
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.