NGA Tour tries to rise above developmental tour muck with merger

ablondin@thesunnews.comJune 3, 2014 

Awash in the rapidly transforming landscape of golf’s developmental tours and mini-tours, the Grand Strand-based National Golf Association (NGA) Pro Golf Tour has merged with the All-American Gateway Tour based in Arizona.

The union brings together the two largest and longest operating developmental tours based on the East and West coasts to form the first nationwide developmental tour in the U.S. – the NGA Gateway Tour.

The increased involvement of the PGA Tour in the world of developmental golf over the past two years has altered its structure, leaving many longstanding tours, including the NGA Tour, searching for players.

“I think both tours have long-established histories, so I think they would have survived,” said All-American Gateway Tour president Dusty Dean. “But I think this is far better for the tours and far better for the players. My belief is in consolidation and bringing these tours together.”

Dean and NGA Tour president Robin Waters of Loris believe combining the tours will provide players at the developmental level with more playing opportunities, additional value to current memberships, increased bonus payouts and exemptions into more lucrative events, and an expanded national schedule that is more accommodating for players looking to compete in PGA and Web.com Tour Monday qualifiers and pre-qualifiers.

“We believe consolidation with other tours across the country is the future at our level, along with the added player benefit of being able to conduct events closer to the PGA and Web.com Tour events and qualifiers,” Waters said. “We feel fortunate to have found a partner and a potential sponsor who share our same goals. With this new tour structure, we will be able to combine resources and work toward getting the developmental level back on solid ground.”

They also believe the new tour’s size and structure bolsters their position. It has spurred preliminary negotiations in the past month with a group of investors and industry leaders that could result in additional funding and revenue streams for the consolidated tour, including a potential equity partner and umbrella naming rights sponsor.

“We know for a fact that we’ll have an umbrella title sponsor, how soon that happens we’re not sure,” Waters said. “We’re looking at all our options at this time.”

Additional plans also include building partnerships and pursuing further consolidation with tours in the U.S., Mexico and the United Kingdom, similar to the NGA Tour’s partnership in 2014 with Canada’s oldest and largest developmental series, The Great Lakes Tour.

Developmental golf, for players who aspire to reach the Web.com and PGA tours, has drastically changed since the PGA Tour has both changed its qualifying process – eliminating immediate qualification through its Q-School for 2014 and all but forcing players to go through the feeder Web.com Tour – and taken a more active role in developmental golf.

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 of about $150,000 per event, which is similar to those offered in recent years by the NGA Tour.

And because they now feed the Web.com Tour through the top finishers on their money lists, U.S. players are chasing those international feeders, drying up the player pool for many domestic tours.

“We didn’t anticipate the impact of the first year of the full rollout of the Web.com Q-School series,” Waters said. “No one could have predicted as drastic an impact and drop that has occurred initially.

“We were predicting maybe 25 percent less. We could have never predicted 40 to 50 percent less. Every tour we know has taken a step back.”

Through 10 of an anticipated 18 events this year, the NGA Tour has had as few as 27 players in one event and as many as 108. In recent years, the tour has consistently sold out fields up to 168 players.

The tour expected to have minimum guaranteed purses all year – in keeping with its model for two decades – of $130,000, but purses have fallen to a high of approximately $100,000 and low of less than $30,000.

“The current climate of developmental golf is very disconcerting,” Waters said. “Players at our level are fragmented and playing for far less purse money than ever before. Last year there was over $10 million in purses paid and this year’s total will barely exceed $6 million [in the U.S.]”

The AAGT recently completed a more consistent season than the NGA Tour, according to Dean, with most of its 15-plus 54-hole events exceeding 100 players and purses between $65,000 and $110,000. But that was the 2013-14 season from October through April, so the success of the 2014-15 season beginning in October is undetermined, and the season was already the result of merged tours. Dean purchased the competing All-American and Gateway tours in Arizona over the past three years and merged them for the 2013-14 season.

“We had a banner year compared to what has happened in the industry,” Dean said. “I attribute it to taking all the competition for the players away and forcing them to play one tour.”

For 25 years, the NGA Tour has been arguably the nation’s most successful developmental tour with an extended regional schedule and week-long 72-hole walking-only events. It was sponsored by Hooters from 1994-2011 and tour alumni have won 16 major championships and include Bubba Watson, Jim Furyk, Keegan Bradley and Zach Johnson.

Waters expects to reestablish guaranteed purses by the end of the NGA Tour’s 2014 season. The tour is in the process of moving from its headquarters in Longs because the office building it was leasing has been sold, and is hoping to relocate to a golf course location on the Strand in the coming months.

The Gateway Tour has been a West Coast counterpart of the NGA Tour since 2001, though its events have generally been held in close proximity to each other. The tour says it has paid out more than $43 million in purses and currently boasts more than 160 alumni currently playing on the PGA or Web.com tours. The All-American Tour was created as a competing tour in 2008.

Both the NGA and Gateway tours have attempted expansion. The NGA Tour had a West Coast series several years ago in California and Arizona, and the Gateway Tour had a Beach Series on the Grand Strand in 2003-04 and a tour in Florida.

Dean expects Waters and the NGA staff to eventually take over full operation of the new NGA Gateway Tour, which aims to have several 2015 events that will follow the Web.com Tour schedule around the country. “The goal is to make it easier for players to try to Monday qualify, and if they don’t make it we provide players another place to play,” Waters said.

The tour also expects to keep or create complementing mini-tours on the West and East coasts, including some version of the Carolina Summer and Winter Series that have been held on the Grand Strand each of the past few years.

Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284 or on Twitter @alanblondin, or read his blog Green Reading at myrtlebeachonline.com

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