From his vantage point, Billy Casper likes what he sees from the talent pool that will populate the PGA TOUR in the next few years.
“The caliber of play looks extremely good. They’re nice young men,” the Hall of Famer said during the Rex Hospital Open, where he served as honorary chairman for the Web.com Tour’s annual visit to Raleigh.
“It looks like they’ve got what it takes to enrich the game in the future.”
The road to the PGA TOUR certainly has changed since Casper and wife, Shirley, set out from San Diego in the summer of 1955, their car hitched to a big house trailer. The Web.com Tour is midway through its 24th season, a place to gain seasoning that has shown over the years to improve a player’s odds of staying on the big stage once he gets there.
It’s almost a mandatory stop now, with the 25 cards previously given out at Q-School now allotted to the new Finals series that pits the top 75 earners on the Web.com Tour against Nos. 126-200 on the PGA TOUR money list.
In Casper’s day, of course, there was no proving ground other than to just get out among the big boys and play. Sink or swim.
“There were a lot of guys who came out and just didn’t cut it,” he recalled. “They could maybe play a short period of time on the money they had. But you couldn’t play a long time if you didn’t produce.”
Even the great Ben Hogan twice went home to Texas broke before harnessing his hook and becoming one of the greatest ballstrikers in history. (And, decades later, the developmental circuit’s very first namesake.)
Professional golf was just beginning to formalize its structure after World War II. The idea of a qualifying tournament for the upcoming season wouldn’t take hold for more than a decade.
To enter an event, newcomers had to submit an affidavit from three PGA of America members that he had the skills to compete. They also had to show enough money in the bank to cover expenses for several months. An arcane PGA rule additionally required a six-month “apprenticeship” in which new pros couldn’t take any winnings from tournaments they entered.
“Those were the things that made it a little more difficult,” said Casper, who filed his papers early enough to time his apprenticeship with his final months in the Navy.
By comparison, anyone who makes the final stage of Q-School is guaranteed at least restricted status on the Web.com Tour. But it can be a long year for anyone who falls short of reaching that final stage.
“You miss Q-School [finals] and that’s no fun,” Brett Stegmaier said earlier this year. The Web.com Tour rookie kicked around on minitours for six years, including two detours with wrist problems, before finally cracking the roster this season.
Before the PGA TOUR went to full-season exempt status for players in 1983, players measured their fortunes more on a week-to-week basis. The most common barometer centered around Monday qualifying.
At the time, the top 30 or so on the money list were exempt from Monday qualifying, as was anyone who made the cut from the previous week. Everyone else was subject to an 18-hole Monday shootout for the remaining 40 or so slots in the field.
“It wasn’t easy by any means,” Casper said, noting that even players who attained early success could get derailed by injury or a turn in form.
“There were some guys who looked pretty good, but didn’t have control over all the assets you needed to play professional golf. I firmly believe the golf swing is important, but you have to play with your mind – and you have to play with your heart. It’s not just a physical game.”
Casper was one of the fortunate ones, having to face Monday qualifying just twice in his career. His professional debut came at the 1955 Western Open in Portland, Ore. He made all 14 cuts the rest of the year. Then he earned a spot in the Los Angeles Open to begin the 1956 season and didn’t miss a cut until March – by which time he was near the top of the money list.
“I never had to Monday qualify ever again,” said Casper, who posted top-10 finishes in 236 of his 556 career PGA TOUR starts. He won 51 times, including two U.S. Opens and the 1970 Masters.
Casper couldn’t help but be impressed with the talent on display. Andrew Putnam set a course record with an opening 62, and Danny Lee took a four-shot lead into the final round before he was overtaken by Raleigh native Chesson Hadley’s closing 64.
Just as importantly, Casper was buoyed by the demeanor of the new crop. He pointed to a ladies’ pro-am to begin the week, where they “just treated the ladies royally.”
“They know how to handle themselves with people, which I think is really the most important ingredient,” he said. “These young men will really be a credit to the PGA TOUR.”