Golf’s minor leagues can provide a major awakening for athletes on their own for the first time.
Kevin Kisner found that out quickly, joining the professional ranks with a qualifying tournament the Monday after he graduated in 2006.
“All of the sudden, you’re your own travel agent and you have to learn what days you want to practice, what days you want to get there, where you want to eat and how to prepare your body to play well,” said Kisner, a former Georgia golfer sitting in the No. 3 spot in the Web.com Tour’s money list. “It’s a whole lot different.”
Kisner, who spent the last two seasons on the PGA Tour, was at the UGA Golf Course on Wednesday, squeezing in a practice round for the upcoming Web.com Tour Stadion Classic at UGA as tournament organizers hosted members of the media. This year’s tournament will be held April 29-May 5.
Kisner can be counted among the many professional golfers who cut their teeth on the PGA’s developmental circuit, previously known as the Nationwide Tour. He played first on other mini tours, including the NGA Hooters and Tarheel Tour, from 2007-09 and won three times. After spending 2010 and 2011 on the Nationwide Tour — winning once in 2010 — he placed 11th on the money list and joined the fraternity of tour graduates that includes 2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker and Zach Johnson, among a host of others.
The experience has been invaluable, said Kisner, who failed to hold on to his PGA Tour card but put himself in position to return at the season’s end by winning the Web.com Tour’s Chile Classic last month. Under new rules, the Web.com Tour’s top 25 money-earners will be guaranteed a PGA Tour card for the following system but will be seeded based on their performance in a season-ending series of tournament to include the Web.com Tour’s top 75 money-earners and the players ranked Nos. 126-200 in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings.
“I think it’s been just a great breeding ground for the PGA Tour as far as building experience in tournament competition and tournament setups, where you learn and understand what it’s going to be like to play at the next level,” Kisner said “Obviously, it’s a vast difference as far as levels once you get there. You’re playing for a whole lot more money with a whole lot more people watching and on a whole lot more demanding golf courses. But at least you learn the schedule and you learn about what you have to do to play at that level.”
The Web.com Tour has been good to other former Georgia golfers, too. Russell Henley won the 2011 Stadion Classic while still a Georgia student-athlete and won twice last year to earn his PGA Tour card. Chris Kirk won twice in 2010 and Erik Compton won once in 2010, propelling them both the PGA Tour. Hudson Swafford, last year’s Stadion champion, and Justin Bolli each won an event last season, with Bolli’s victory — his fourth overall on the tour — bumping him back up to the next level.
For many of them, the time outside the PGA Tour made them better prepared when they reached that level, Georgia coach Chris Haack said.
Haack pointed to Henley, who while at Georgia was named the Southeastern Conference player of the year and won the 2010 Fred Haskins Award presented to the nation’s top college golfer. But when Henley turned pro after the 2011 Walker Cup, he hit some speed bumps, missing the cut seven times in his first 16 tries before cracking the top 10 midseason in 2012.
Henley then finished in the top 10 three times in the next five weeks and won two of the season’s final four tournaments, both in playoffs. He then followed it up with a victory at the Sony Open, his first PGA Tour event, to earn a spot in next week’s Masters Tournament.
“I really do think that spending a year out here on the Web.com Tour helped Russell make that transition,” Haack said. “I think these guys that do this, it just helps them make the transition to the next level. Some will make it with no problem, but the majority, this really helps them get prepared for that and it’s great for those guys.”