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Canadian-content conundrum

Homegrown golfers finding it harder to crack upgraded tour

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The Canada part of PGA Tour Canada is getting to be a tougher nut to crack.

Competition levels are up and Maple Leaf participation levels are down, if you take this week's Players Cup at Pine Ridge as evidence.

The $150,000 event starts today at the 102-year-old Donald Ross design. Thirty Canadians are entered, including just three from Manitoba.

Last year, there were 57 Canucks. In 2012, there were 54. And it's not that long ago, 2007-2009, that Canadians (Mike Mezei, Wes Heffernan, Graham DeLaet) won this event three years in a row.

One cause for the 2014 change is turnover. The tour's new regime under the PGA Tour operation now puts the emphasis on very recent past performance. Only the top 60 players from last year's money list kept their cards. Winners from last year are exempt through the end of 2014, but so many of the veteran and older-history accomplishments count for so much less.

Example -- 2012 Players Cup champ Chris Killmer required a sponsors exemption to play this week.

With interest in the tour ramping up because of the establishment of the direct connection to the Web.com Tour -- the top five players each year graduate up the ladder -- there are just more good players from everywhere wanting to play.

In many respects, it's a good problem to have.

Pine Ridge will see what's likely the best field of the PGA Tour Canada season, according to officials on Wednesday.

And it's prompting Canadians to pick up their game.

"That's a pretty big difference (57 Canadians down to 30 this year), yeah, but it also means some Canadians are doing well, moving up to the next step," said this year's top Canuck to date, 23-year-old Eugene Wong of Vancouver, who sits eighth on the money list at $15,026. "We're growing, but trying to grow to a bigger stage. This is the stepping stone.

"It's very competitive out here. If you can compete out here, you can compete on the Web.com and if you can compete on the Web.com, you can do decently on the PGA Tour. It's all about the stepping stones. Very rarely you see players starting out on the PGA Tour right away. That's rare now."

It is more rare, but the dream is very much alive.

Wong, for instance, had his first taste of the Web.com Tour last week in Nova Scotia. He started off well but when Hurricane Arthur forced a 36-hole finish on Sunday, he dropped back to a tie for 46th.

"The 36 holes was brutal," Wong said. "It was really windy, blowing at least 45 (km/h), some 60 gusts in the morning round, so it was tough. I didn't play as well as expected. But for me it was a learning experience, my first Web.com event ever. I got my feet wet to see how it is out there."

There will be many players getting their feet wet, so to speak, at Pine Ridge this week. Officials estimate that the tour's turnover will see more than half the field playing here for the first time.

On paper, Pine Ridge, at 6,601 yards, is shorter than today's tour golf should be and may look easy on paper. But its greens can at times be confounding, requiring correct angles of approach and a silky touch with the short game.

"I've made four cuts here but never finished high," said Joel Dahmen, who's won two of the four tournaments so far this season and is the tour's top money-earner at $57,638. "This course is just really tricky around the greens. I haven't figured out how to play it yet. One year I played it super aggressively and tried to attack everything and I made a lot of birdies but made some bogeys.

"Another year I played super conservatively so I made a lot of pars. So I haven't really figured out what to do."

Dahmen, the 26-year-old from Lewiston, Idaho, decided to phone a friend. He called his good buddy Carlos Sainz, Jr., who won the Players Cup in 2013.

"I've been chatting with Carlos and he gave me a few little things, a few plays off the tee and some misses to watch for and where the tough pins are," Dahmen said. "I hope there are little things that will help out over the course of four rounds."

A little advice has worked wonders for Dahmen this year. Prior to his Canadian double play in Vancouver and Ft. McMurray, Alta., he won a couple of Gateway Tour events in Arizona.

"I got a real lesson for the first time in my life," he said about last winter, when he decided to consult top teacher Scott Sackett in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"I finally decided to shell out a little bit of money and he saw some flaws that would really show up under pressure.

"I think I was there mentally but my swing wasn't going to hold up under pressure. We changed a few things, small tweaks, then I won twice down in Arizona this winter on the Gateway Tour, including first time out by six, hit some great shots down the stretch, so it became much easier to trust what I was doing.

"At that point, I just knew I could finish up here."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 10, 2014 D5

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