Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Players Cup offers new set of perks

Pine Ridge event has golfers pumped over possibilities

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The prize money has always been nice -- certainly negotiable at banks everywhere -- but past wins and performance on Canada's professional golf tour had very few official rewards in the hierarchy of tours.

Just confidence and hope.

And banks don't take those.

Now operated and branded by the PGA Tour, this year's PGA Tour Canada and this week's Players Cup in particular have brought a different feel, flavour and pressure to Winnipeg and Pine Ridge Golf Club, especially when the first swing of the $150,000, 72-hole event takes place this morning.

Perks like three invites to the RBC Canadian Open are still in place for the top money-list players after this week, but the bigger picture offers real opportunity for the future.

The year's top five go straight to the Web.com Tour, where the cards to the PGA Tour are won. The next five go straight to the qualifying-school final stage, which is at least some status on Web.com next year. And the next 10 after that get a pass to second stage of Q-school.

The chance to climb the ladder from Canada finally has a real ladder.

"With the PGA Tour taking this over, everything out here has kind of amped up a little," said Wil Collins, the 34-year-old from South Dakota and the No. 2 man on the money list right now. "The signage, the competition -- a lot of guys are now coming up here that haven't in the past -- and everybody's excited about the gateway to Web.com (Tour). That's huge.

"In the past it's been a little frustrating, especially for someone like myself who's done this for 11 years. Obviously from a financial standpoint, playing well in the summer helped but it didn't help you in terms of getting to the next level or a higher tour. That was always rough. This year we have some hope."

Having played this tour before, Collins scratched his way to the PGA Tour in 2009 and is off to a great start on the road back. He won two weeks ago in Saskatoon and now has $28,768 in official 2013 money.

"I love this golf course, (course architect) Donald Ross, love his greens," Collins added. "It's challenging. But if you start thinking about money-list scenarios or what it takes for the Canadian Open, or what it'll take for top five or top 10 by the end of the year, you'll lose your mind and start missing cuts left and right.

"I've been down that road enough to know that you're as good as your last shot."

Farther down this year's money list but always a man with optimism -- not to mention his good track record at Pine Ridge, a 2006 win, and not out of the top 10 the last three years -- is Josh Habig of San Diego.

The 36-year-old said on Wednesday's practice day at Pine Ridge he sees and feels a different tour.

"There's a little more energy and so much more significance at every event," said Habig, No. 32 so far this year with $4,025. "Everybody knows if you have a good week out here or make the most out of the season it gets you someplace now.

"That opportunity has everybody a little more invigorated about the season."

Pine Ridge, one of the tour's shorter tracks at 6,641 yards, has returned to a par of 72 this year. The second hole, for a time a par-4 from a shorter tee, has been restored to a tournament par-5.

But distance is not the issue this week, Habig said.

"I don't think this course has ever been about the distance on the card," he said. "It's about how to position yourself and get the best score out of what you've got working."

Wes Heffernan of Calgary, the tournament's 2008 champion, agreed.

"You can hit drivers around here but you don't have to," Heffernan said. "Sometimes on courses nowadays, you just bomb it and go up there and try to get it on the green. This one, you kind of have to think your way around, the way the greens are designed."

With more better-quality players on the tour and a short-ish golf course this week, is the Players Cup prone to another weekend logjam like the one that produced last year's Sunday playoff?

"It can happen, but you never know," Heffernan said. "On any tour on any week, a guy can play his best and win by eight. Sometimes there's a pack, sometimes a few guys get away. The year I won, there was a pack and I never thought about winning, I just played and all of a sudden I won."

The thoughts won't be far away this week, no matter how hard these aspiring players try to keep them away.

"Behind the scenes, the PGA Tour knows how to do things," Heffernan said. "We're playing for those 10 spots and it's just more to play for."

tim.campbell@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 18, 2013 D2

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