Ticket To The Top
Photo: Michael Cohen/Getty Images
Today's Web.com players could be future PGA stars. Smylie Kaufman won the Web.com United Leasing Championship in May, then went on to his first PGA victory in October.
The Web.com Tour has become the preferred proving ground for making the PGA Tour

With the posse continually in the distance but always on their trail, Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy turns to Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid in their legendary 1969 buddy movie and says: "Who are those guys?"

An explosion of new talent catapulted onto the PGA Tour scene at the start of the wraparound season in October. Emiliano Grillo, Smylie Kaufman, Justin Thomas, Peter Malnati and Kevin Kisner won five of the first six events and became first-time winners on the Tour, confirming their presence in the top echelon of the game.

The established stars of the PGA Tour may have turned to each other like Butch and Sundance and asked the question: "Who are these guys?"

These young players aren't just anonymous pursuers of the game's riches and acclaim. They form a substantial posse of highly talented and competitive players whose names go up in lights when they win a PGA Tour title. But their bonafides as professionals increasingly are established in the modern womb of PGA Tour professionalism. Grillo, Kaufman, Thomas, Malnati and Kisner all made it to the PGA Tour after an apprenticeship on the Web.com Tour.

You could call the Web.com Tour (conceived, owned and operated by the PGA Tour) minor league if you want, and in its beginning it certainly was. It began in 1990, as the Ben Hogan Tour, and it has gone through several iterations over the years, as the Nike Tour, the Nationwide Tour, the Buy.com Tour and now the Web.com Tour. Today it is anything but minor, and is the established pathway to the PGA Tour.

Some of the biggest names on today's PGA Tour cut their chops on the ultracompetitive Web.com Tour, including major winners Keegan Bradley, Bubba Watson, Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson. Today the top 25 money winners during the Web.com regular season earn PGA Tour cards (up from five in 1990) and another 25 cards are issued at the conclusion of the four-event Web.com Finals where the top 75 money winners on the Web.com Tour play against those who have finished 126 to 200 on the PGA Tour rankings from the previous season.

The quality of play on the Web.com has seriously risen above that of Triple A ball. Jeff Sanders has watched it all happen. Sanders is the executive director of the Web.com Tour's Albertson's Boise Open, an original member of the Web.com Tour rota. He was off and on the PGA Tour in the mid-'80s before stepping outside the ropes to get into tournament administration. He's been intimately involved in the Web.com Tour since those early days.

"The tour started off as a place to learn how to play professional golf—learn how to travel, learn how to putt for money, learn how to work with a caddie. Definitely more of a developmental tour," explains Sanders. "Now, in my opinion for 2016, this tour is an expansion of the PGA Tour. Boise, Idaho; Bakersfield, California; Tacoma,Washington; those were the kind of markets this tour went into in the beginning because of their size. Now we have this event in Portland, which at the beginning of the tour would have been considered too big a market. Now you have Jacksonville, Chicago—lots of bigger markets."

It isn't just the bigger markets that make the Web.com Tour what it is today. It's the caliber of play, and what's at stake. The Web.com Tour, for the last three seasons, has replaced the PGA Tour qualifying school as the direct path to the PGA Tour, and the players have reached a higher level of both accomplishment and expectation.

"The fear is gone. These guys come out now and they are ready to win," says Sanders. "They follow guys on the Web.com Tour that have won, and they say I've played on the Web.com with these guys and I could compete with them. When they see these guys graduate to the PGA Tour and see them win, they say when I get out there I'll have a chance to win, too. Used to be when you came out years ago as a 22-, 23-, 24-year-old, there was a period of time where guys had to learn how to play the PGA Tour. They don't really have to now. They come right out ready to go, ready to win. That's the biggest single difference over the last 25 years."

That's exactly how Smylie Kaufman felt after he won the Web.com's United Leasing Championship last May. As he held the trophy, he knew he had a strong toehold on getting his PGA Tour card for the 2015-16 season, and when he got out on the big tour, he could compete, and he could win.

"Absolutely I did," says Kaufman just after winning the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open at Las Vegas last October. He shot a final round of 61, the second event on the PGA Tour's wraparound season.

Kaufman's story is not untypical of the rise of talented players through the Web.com Tour. The 23-year-old from Birmingham, Alabama was a good college player for Louisiana State, but he wasn't making anyone forget Tiger Woods' or Phil Mickelson's college careers. When he went to the Web.com qualifying school in 2014, he only played well enough to get conditional status, finishing in a tie for 64th. He got into three events at the start of the season in South America and missed every cut. Then he got a sponsor's exemption into the Louisiana Web.com event and finished fourth. That got him into the next event, where he finished fourth again. That got him into the United Leasing Championship where he won. And those finishes pretty much assured that he would finish in the top 25 money winners during the regular season and earn his PGA Tour card.

The Web.com Tour remains a place where young players learn how to be a week-to-week professional even if their games are virtually equivalent to PGA Tour grade. And Kaufman is a poster boy for the Web.com's apprentice program.

"The Web.com Tour for me was about playing a full schedule. I had never done that before in my life," says Kaufman. "Just how you manage a seven-day week, how you manage your practice rounds and how you manage pro-ams, how you handle your body Thursday to Sunday, how you work out, when you work out. I wouldn't have had a clue how to do any of that unless I was put in that situation. Figuring out what works best for me, that's pretty much what the Web.com did for me."

Bill Calfee has been president of the Web.com Tour since 1999, and has presided over its transformation. He was at the forefront of making the Web.com the official stepping-stone to the PGA Tour in 2013, something that took a great deal of cajoling from established players who thought the old PGA Tour qualifying school was good enough.

"The concept was to start a small tour with the Ben Hogan company, 30 events in small markets with $100,000 purses, five cards going to the PGA Tour at the end of the season," says Calfee. "Really, it was to help guys develop their game, improve their game so they could get to PGA Tour quality and then get to the PGA Tour. It was developmental, clearly minor league in the early days—the competition and the markets we were playing in, the media footprint, no television, no charity component, none of that.

"You fast-forward to today and a lot has changed over the years. In the changes we've made and the structure we changed a couple of years ago, it is the path to the PGA Tour.

"And the major reason we changed the system, as I look at it, is that these guys aren't developing their games, they aren't minor league, although that's an easy default position in that when you look at the PGA Tour then this must be minor league. I look at it as our form of expansion, PGA Tour II. These guys have the game. They are proving it every single year."

Tom Lehman, now a Champions Tour player, was an off-and-on player on the PGA Tour in the 1980s, and the Ben Hogan Tour became his ski lift to the PGA Tour mountain. He was leading Hogan Tour money winner in 1991, gaining PGA Tour status, and among his PGA Tour wins was the 1996 British Open.

In 26 seasons of play there have been 419 victories on the PGA Tour by Web.com alumni. A total of 387 different players (including repeat winners) had won their cards through the Web.com. The tour has expanded into South and Central America and into Nova Scotia. The purses have gone up from $100,000 to as much as $1 million, though a player would have to finish in the top 10 to be really making a living.

More than just a stepping-stone, the Web.com Tour is also a safety net. PGA Tour players who drop outside the top 125 in the FedEx Cup points list are placed on conditional status, locking them out of certain events. Those who fall between 126 and 200 in points qualify for the Web.com Tour finals and can earn their cards back in those four tournaments. If they don't, they can still earn a card for the Web.com season, and many have done just that. This past season, four players 40 and older regained their PGA Tour cards through the Web.com—Dicky Pride, Shane Bertsch, Rod Pampling and Darron Stiles. Lucas Glover, the winner of the 2009 U.S. Open, got his card back in the same way.

"I've been 22 years off and on the PGA Tour—how many years on the PGA Tour itself, I don't even know. Not enough, how about that?" says 46-year-old Dicky Pride with a chuckle during the PGA Tour event in Las Vegas in October. "The Web.com Tour has morphed into something completely different than it used to be," explains the veteran. "It's changed over the years to where now it's the way to get to the PGA Tour and there's only one route, which is the Web.com.

"It's a different beast than it used to be. It's a really good tour. To me it's more of an interesting mix because you have a bunch of kids with a lot of talent who don't know how to be professionals yet, you've got some older players—and you are going to see more older, established players out there if they have a bad year play to get their status back. I'm definitely the older player. It's fun to be with those kids. I finished in the top 25 this year and Shane Bertsch and Rod Pampling and Darron Stiles, all in our 40s and got our cards back."

Pardon Shane Bertsch if he feels like he's been on a shuttle between the tours the past 20 years, but that's the way it's gone for the 45-year-old. Poor play and unfortunate injuries took their toll on his ability to play PGA Tour golf. But he's back, courtesy of the Web.com Tour.

"I got my Nike card in 1995. I've been between the two tours for 20 years. Eight on PGA, 12 on the other," says Bertsch. "Once you've played the PGA Tour, the Web.com Tour is the tour you don't want to play. But, if you are not on the PGA Tour, you love to play it. It's a love-hate relationship with the Web.com Tour. I think some people hate it so much they don't play good and never get back, instead of embracing the fact they still have a place to play golf for a living, which we are so lucky to have, where you can try to keep improving and get back out here.

"It's a lifeline, but it's hard to make a living out there," he says. "You can't finish 26th every year. Financially it just doesn't work."

Pride can attest to the difficulty of trying to make ends meet when you are playing only on the Web.com Tour.

"It's difficult to be part time on PGA Tour and keep your card. I've done it, but it's really difficult," says Pride, who is married and has two children. He explains that Web.com events have winning purses that are only 10 percent of what is paid out for winners on the PGA Tour.

"We play for 10 percent of the purses but the bills are still the same," he says. "Airlines don't give you a discount because you play on the Web.com Tour. But professional golf is difficult, so it's okay."

Ben Martin learned how tough pro golf is from the git-go. He was fortunate to earn his PGA Tour card straight out of college in 2010, but he lost it at the end of the 2011 season. He went to the Web.com Tour for two seasons, becoming a winner in 2013, then reaching the PGA Tour again in 2014 where he won the Las Vegas event. The Web.com Tour gave him the confidence and the experience to win on the biggest stage.

"The biggest thing it taught me is how to be a professional. How to travel, manage your time," says Martin. "I think it's a lot tougher to travel out there because on the PGA Tour you have the West Coast swing, the Florida swing, tournaments that are close together. Out there you start off the year in South and Central America, there is really no rhyme or reason to how they set the schedule. You are flying back and forth, that can be a little bit of a grind.

"But also when you have some success out there like I did in 2013. It teaches you how to be in contention, how to win, how to finish. I had six, seven top 10s and two wins. Taught me how to grind it out on Sunday and win a golf tournament."

Keegan Bradley came off a successful 2010 Web.com season to win the PGA Championship and become the PGA Tour rookie of the year in 2011. Was he ready to be a PGA Tour player right off the bat? "No, I don't think so," he says. "The Web.com did a lot for me as a player, teaches you a lot about how to be on the PGA Tour and thankfully I was able to play a year out there...You are playing four-round events, traveling, needing a caddie—it's a big learning experience.What you learn as a whole is more important than anything."

One of the things players on the Web.com absolutely learn is that they don't want to be out there forever. It's a place to play, a place to learn, a place to recuperate, a place to recover, but it's not Park Place. There's a reason why players refer to it as "There" and refer to the PGA Tour as "Here."

"The way to look at the Web.com Tour is that it is a stepping-stone to the PGA Tour and it's not a place you want to spend a lot of time," says Sanders. "I look at it as a guy who qualified for the PGA Tour four times through the old qualifying school, lost my card every year. I would have loved to play the Web.com to experience what I've been talking about. The money side would not have been my priority. My priority would have been to get to the PGA Tour. This isn't a place I'm going to be forever or I'm going to do something else. The purses aren't going to be high enough for a guy who wants to play on the Web.com Tour for a long time.

Pride always wanted to be "Here" rather than "There," but "There" was certainly better than "Nowhere."

"I was on the Players Advisory Committee last year and I'd tell them flat out I would rather be on the PGA Tour," says Pride. "If you are on the Web.com and you don't want to get to the next level, and aren't fired up to get there, then you probably don't need to be a professional golfer."

There is some murmuring among players that Web.com Tour purses are kept purposely low to drive the desire to get to the PGA Tour, or to get out. Calfee says that's not so.

"We've never held back purses. We would like to see purses grow," says Calfee. "It's really a function of the markets and the events and how successful they are in terms of revenue. There is always a balance between charity and purse. A lot of host organizations, their first priority is charity. And charity is very, very important to us on the PGA Tour. But our first priority is to our players and their financial benefits. We do contribute $300,000 to $400,000 to each purse in the markets. In the renewal process we are asking tournaments to raise their purses, especially those who are very successful from a charitable perspective."

All the players on the Web.com Tour would like to be playing for more money. But the way to do that is to play well enough to make it to the PGA Tour. The Web.com Tour is the way to go from "There" to "Here."

And now a whole bunch of Web.com players are saying, "Here we come."

Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.