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New name, same tradition: Korn Ferry Tour to continue pathway for golf’s elite

FARMINGTON, UT - JUNE 29: A view of Korn Ferry Tour pin flag during the third round of the Korn Ferry Tour's Utah Championship presented by Zions Bank at Oakridge Country Club on June 29, 2019 in Farmington, Utah. (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

Former PGA TOUR standouts reminisce on Tour’s storied history

By Jim McCabe/PGA TOUR

You could quantify the financial backing of his company. But when his support was reinforced with a personal message, Ben Hogan’s words were considered by PGA TOUR officials to be priceless.

No one in golf history had persevered and worked his way up through the ranks quite like the iconic Hogan, so his passion for this developmental tour that the PGA TOUR was introducing in 1990 brought instant credibility.

“Somewhere out there today is a young man like I was, battling to stay in competition long enough to get a break,” said Hogan. “I want to help him.”

Those words were spoken nearly 30 years ago, but they resonate loudly and profoundly today and sit at the heart of Korn Ferry’s decision to sign a 10-year agreement to become umbrella sponsor of the PGA TOUR’s developmental tour.

“We’re excited to partner with the PGA TOUR,” said Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry, a Los Angeles-based global organizational consulting firm.

“Our organizations are both all about talent—getting players and people to that next level and advancing their careers. People will never discover their full potential until they are provided an abundance of opportunity. Korn Ferry and the Korn Ferry Tour provide that opportunity.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – Alex Baldwin, PGA Korn Ferry Tour President, Jay Monohan, PGA Tour Commissioner and Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry attend the Korn Ferry Tour Announcement At The NYSE on June 19, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Surely, Hogan felt similarly when he gave his blessing to his equipment company to become the first umbrella sponsor. The Ben Hogan Tour debuted in February 1990, and if Hogan’s goals were to provide opportunity and help, you could say he succeeded to levels even he may never have envisioned.

“It was kind of cool, very organized, nothing like the minitours,” said Mike Springer, a former University of Arizona standout who had status on the Ben Hogan Tour in 1990 and is notable for winning its first tournament. With rounds of 68-70-71 for 7-under 209, Springer earned U.S. $20,000 in winning the Ben Hogan Bakersfield Open in early February of that year, beating notable competitors who would be future PGA TOUR names such as David Toms, Olin Browne, Brandel Chamblee, Marco Dawson and Dennis Paulson.

“It was such a great starting point for many of us and it felt like the PGA TOUR—minus the money and the (crowds),” said Springer. “But it provided an avenue to the PGA TOUR.”

Hogan surely approved of the Tour’s success, which was substantial. Before his death in late July 1997, Hogan had already been afforded a glimpse of why this PGA TOUR concept had quickly come to fruition. Between 1991 and July 1997, 23 different graduates of the developmental tour had won a total of 36 PGA TOUR tournaments, including five major championships (John Daly, the 1991 PGA Championship and 1995 Open Championship; Ernie Els the 1994 and 1997 U.S. Opens; and Tom Lehman the 1996 Open Championship) as well as the 1996 TOUR Championship (Lehman).

An immediate hit as a proving ground when launched 30 years ago, the Ben Hogan Tour—which later transitioned into the Nike Tour, then the Buy.com Tour, the Nationwide Tour, and the Web.com Tour before Korn Ferry became the umbrella sponsor—can be considered where good golfers go to blossom into great talents, a pathway that impressed Hogan, a man not easily swayed.

“I wish there had been a similar opportunity when I was starting out,” Hogan told reporters. Maybe my career would have gotten off to a faster start.”

Years later, world-class players can commiserate with the hard road Hogan traveled. Tony Finau, for instance. A PGA TOUR winner who went into this summer’s Open Championship ranked 16th in the world, Finau doesn’t hesitate to remind folks that he “played seven years on the minitours; I know what it’s like trying to make it.”

Which is why, when he finally landed on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2014, Finau embraced the opportunity. He knew he had a chance to hone his game, to learn how to travel, to engrain into his practice routine a ritual that could help him graduate seamlessly to the PGA TOUR. With a Korn Ferry Tour win and four other Top 10 finishes in 2014, Finau earned rookie-year status on the PGA TOUR for 2014-15.

Five years and much success on the PGA TOUR has not spoiled Finau’s lofty perspective. He cherishes the opportunity the Korn Ferry Tour provided him, and he is invested through his foundation to support a tournament in his native Utah. Like Hogan, Finau feels there is a crucial need for a developmental tour, and he applauds Korn Ferry for aligning behind it.

“It really is impressive, this 10-year deal,” said Finau.

Peter Malnati is another who owes his PGA TOUR career to the Korn Ferry Tour—with three different graduations, in fact—after experiencing the turbulent and unsettled world of minitour golf. “For four-and-a-half years, I had no membership, no status anywhere,” said Malnati, “so it was always my goal every year to get to the (Korn Ferry) Tour.”

Across parts of seven seasons that included 50 Korn Ferry Tour tournaments, Malnati won twice and concedes he got plenty of time to learn where his game needed improvements.

“I always thought the (Korn Ferry Tour) was a steppingstone,” he said. “Now, to know that that steppingstone has security for 10 years and continue to grow and drive new players is great for people who want to do this for a living.”

Mike Springer wins the Korn Ferry Tour’s inaugural 1990 Ben Hogan Bakersfield Open (PGA TOUR Archives)

From a vantage point that stretches all the way to that debut season of 1990, Springer offers great praise for an idea that surely flourished. He remembers how you made it onto the PGA TOUR pre-1990 – through an annual Qualifying Tournament that was built around three stages and a final challenge of six rounds.

“Trouble is,” said Springer, “you had to be playing well in October and November. You needed all the pieces together at the time, or else you were gone, and you’d have nowhere to play.”

That was Springer in the fall of 1988 and he doesn’t mince words. “I was devastated,” he said.

He was also left to search for whatever minitour he could find and to travel the country in search of tournaments such as the Bogey Hills Invitational at Bogey Hills CC in St. Charles, Missouri. (Springer was T4, good for $9,000 in 1989.)

Hardly a glamorous lifestyle, but Springer said the Ben Hogan Tour in 1990 offered an option that aspiring pros loved. “You had all year to prove yourself, 25 to 30 weeks,” said Springer, who was one of five players from that first class of Ben Hogan Tour players to earn PGA TOUR cards for 1991. The others were Jeff Maggert, Jim McGovern, Ed Humenik and Dick Mast.

If you feel a sense of pride in Springer’s voice, it’s for good reason. He rode off that developmental tour and had a productive 10-year career on the PGA TOUR, the highlight being a pair of wins in 1994. Maggert (three) and McGovern (one) also won the PGA TOUR, while Humenik (six full seasons) and Mast (350 starts) were on the landscape for quite a while.

Then, pointing to a few of the names who were involved in the early years of the Korn Ferry Tour—Lehman, Daly, Els, Steve Lowery, Tim Herron, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Bruce Fleisher, Mike Heinen, Willie Wood—Springer turns the spotlight on the PGA TOUR.

“I feel they’ve done a great job developing the (Korn Ferry) Tour. It’s a great thing for young players.”

Thirty years in and the testament to the staying power and value of the Korn Ferry Tour is overwhelming. PGA TOUR tournaments won by players who honed their game on the Korn Ferry Tour number an astounding 530, the rollcall a virtual Who’s Who of world-class names: Bubba Watson, Jason Day, Gary Woodland, Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele, Zach Johnson, Brandt Snedeker, Billy Horschel, Patrick Cantlay, Marc Leishman, Bryson DeChambeau, Jimmy Walker, Jason Dufner and Kevin Kisner.

Likely, PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan had names like those in mind when he praised Korn Ferry for “collaborating with a TOUR that has proven to identify the next generation of PGA TOUR talent over the last 30 years.”

It was, added the commissioner, a significant day for the long-term health of the PGA TOUR.

“We welcome Korn Ferry to the PGA TOUR family,” he said. “Our thanks to Gary Burnison and his team for a partnership that will promote Korn Ferry’s mission of helping people and organizations exceed their potential.”

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