Beating the bushes and living a dream Nike: On the minor-league tour, golfers find the competition stiff and the fact that they aren't on the PGA Tour frustrating.

May 21, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

They are a collection of wanna-bes and never-wases, castoffs looking for another shot at the big-time or up-and-comers getting their first taste of success. Some are waiting for PGA Tour qualifying school this fall, others counting the days or months or years until they hit the big 5-0 and pull the cord on golf's golden parachute, also known as the Senior Tour.

They are members of the Nike Tour and, for many, Tom Lehman is their personal god.

It was only seven years ago that Lehman was one of them, a $40,000 failure in three seasons on the PGA Tour who needed seven years to get back his card and his confidence. Lehman went from Player of the Year on what was then called the Hogan Tour in 1991 to PGA Tour Player of the Year in 1996.

Dave Schreyer is just about the same age that Lehman was when his career began to skyrocket.

"I'm 31, but I look like I'm 18," Schreyer said last week before the Nike Tour's Dominion Open in Glen Allen, Va. "I'm still growing."

Schreyer's growth spurt as a player includes five victories in seven years on the Hooters Tour -- think of it as the Double-A level of professional golf -- and a fleeting moment on the periphery of the spotlight cast by Tiger Woods in last year's U.S. Open.

Tied for fifth after 36 holes and in the same threesome as the then-reigning Masters champion for the third round at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Schreyer took the fast lane back to oblivion with a 12-over-par 82 that included seven three-putts.

"I wasn't ready for it," said Schreyer, who recovered some of his pride, if not his putting stroke, with a final-round 74. "But I think I learned a lot from it. I'll be better prepared if I'm in the same situation this year. And hopefully I'll find myself back on the PGA Tour someday."

Schreyer played the PGA Tour one year -- 1992, the same year Lehman made it back after a hiatus during which he played several backwater tours in this country as well as overseas -- and made it to the weekend only three times in 23 events. The brother of LPGA player Cindy McCurdy, Schreyer's career has been sidetracked by illness and injuries.

There was the elbow surgery that nearly ended his career after college. There were bouts with fainting caused by low blood pressure. And there have been the freak accidents the past two years before and during the Tour qualifying school.

"Two years ago, I slipped in the bathroom and hit my head on the toilet before the final round [of the first stage] and shot 78," said Schreyer, who hopes to qualify this year either by finishing in the top 15 on the Nike Tour's money list or by going through Q-school. "And last year I fell down a flight of stairs the week of the final stage and hyperextended my elbow."

On a mostly faceless tour whose biggest draw -- Casey Martin -- is identifiable because of his disability, Barry Jaeckel is a guy everyone seems to know. Or think they know. But that happens when you've been on the PGA Tour for more than 20 years.

Now 49, Jaeckel gets to tee it up on the Nike Tour because he won a PGA Tour event 20 years ago. Jaeckel made just less than $1 million in his career, but never more than $87,931 in a single year. The prospect of the Senior Tour doesn't interest him -- yet.

"I'm in no hurry to get out there," said the son of the late actor Richard Jaeckel. "I would like to get another crack at the PGA Tour and make up for those lost years."

The difference between being exempt on the PGA Tour and having only conditional status on the Nike Tour could be simply one bad round. It was for Jay Williamson, whose final-round 79 cost him a chance at winning the 1996 Kemper Open.

Instead of two years of playing the PGA Tour with exempt status, Williamson spent last year scrambling to get into events in both the United States and Canada and this year hoping to get into Nike Tour events when others drop out.

"My career," said Williamson, who played the PGA Tour in 1995 and 1996, "is definitely on hold."

Others seem to be in good position to regain their cards. John Wilson, whose $99,003 leads the Nike Tour by a comfortable margin, is one of 10 players among the top 15 on the money list to have played the PGA Tour during their careers.

"Everyone is in kind of a different situation," said Williamson, 31, who had four top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour between 1995 and 1997. "For a majority of the players it's kind of a demotion. But if you get caught up in it, you'll never get back to where you want to go."

With a chance to be another Tom Lehman.

Pub Date: 5/21/98

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