Classify Dusty Fielding among the rawest of Web.com Tour rookies.
The Utah pro counts zero PGA TOUR or Web.com Tour starts on his résumé. No sponsor exemptions, no Monday qualifying, though he did manage to attend one Web.com Tour event as a spectator. Last summer, his season was cut short when the minitour he was playing folded.
Well, there were those dozen or so appearances on the Champions Tour – but he was carrying clubs, not swinging them.
“This is brand new,” Fielding said. “The biggest tournament I’ve ever played was the Utah Open, or one of those state opens.”
That’s perhaps rarer than you think. Of the 132 players who will get the new season underway next week in Panama, nearly all have had at least a taste of the larger stage – even if it’s just one or two starts.
“That was a big thing,” said Chesson Hadley, who missed last year’s Wyndham Championship cut by one as a Monday qualifier. “It wasn’t surprising, but more reaffirming. I’m where I need to be.”
Now comes the opportunity to demonstrate it over the course of 21 events, plus the four-stop Web.com Tour Finals for those who finish among the top 75 in earnings. If all goes well, a PGA TOUR card awaits.
Either way, it beats scratching out another year on a lower rung.
“I have a lot of learning to do, but I’m definitely excited to play for more money and get into some foreign events,” said Brett Stegmaier, who wasn’t keen about a seventh season of minitours before he emerged from December’s qualifying finals with one of the last full Web.com Tour cards.
“If I didn’t get through q-school this time, I was probably done,” the 29-year-old pro added. “I’m real excited to not have to look for a job.”
Stegmaier was a three-time All-American at Florida, winning the SEC individual title as a freshman in 2003. His teammates over the years included Camilo Villegas, Matt Every and Billy Horschel, but a wrist injury and long, loose swing held him back.
He took a club pro job in his native Connecticut after two surgeries on his left wrist, but got the playing bug back after Monday qualifying for the 2010 Travelers Championship. Work with coach John Bierkan produced a tighter swing that held up under q-school pressure.
“My bad days now are where I can still shoot under par,” he said.
Nor has the art of grinding out a good score been lost on Hadley or Fielding.
“You sit on the couch and watch the PGA TOUR on TV,” Hadley said, “and it seems like they only show the good shots. You see shots hit to 10 feet and think these guys do that every hole. It’s not, but you wouldn’t know that if you don’t have that experience like I did last year.”
Hadley said he took his “C-plus game” into Greensboro last August. Even so, the Georgia Tech alum opened with a 68 before a Friday 72 left him a stroke short of playing the weekend.
“I was disappointed because I missed the cut and wanted to play well,” he said. “Then again, I kind of proved myself against some of the greatest golf competition in the world.”
For Fielding, a similar message took hold during a stint as caddie for Champions Tour pro Jay Don Blake – a time that included a final-round pairing with Tom Lehman at the 2010 Senior PGA Championship and a victory in Korea.
“When they don’t have their good stuff at the time, they just grind and make as many pars as they can,” Fielding said. “They know they’re going to have a hot stretch at some point in their round. I’ve talked about it with Jay Don – you can’t get down on yourself when you’re not hitting good shots.”
It’s an approach that Fielding put to use during the second stage of q-school. Midway through the third round, he four-putted for a double bogey that moved him from above the qualifying line to below.
“That’s the sort of thing that a few years ago, I don’t know if I would have ever recovered,” he said. “But I came out and birdied the next three holes after that. ... I think that’s one of the things I’ve made a strength, to bounce back when bad things happen.”
A bigger bounceback, perhaps, came earlier last year when Fielding became a man without a place to play. He made 13 starts on the National Pro Tour, including two top-5 finishes, before the circuit lost a key sponsor and ran out of money.
“I was stuck up a creek there,” he said. “That made it a struggle to get to q-school. I’d spent so much money on travel and stuff, I was pretty much broke.”
Returning home, a runner-up finish at the Utah Open provided Fielding with some well-timed finances. After earning his card, he tied for second at the Nevada Open – behind an amateur, allowing him to share in first-place money.
Now it’s all new territory. A couple of years ago, Fielding caught a couple of rounds at the old Soboba Golf Classic while traveling with friends, but that’s his only experience with the Web.com Tour.
“I don’t know a single person out there,” he said. For now, Fielding will lean on his experience of being inside the ropes with Blake.
“I’ve gotten a little taste of that feeling,” he said. “But it’ll be an interesting new experience to be playing in it instead.”