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How'd they end up here?

This market is a better fit than Twin Cities for Nationwide Tour

By Jerry Zgoda

McClatchy Newspapers

The first two Scholarship America Showdowns delivered to nearby Troy Burne Golf Club champions whose girth, personas and recognizable surnames still couldn't make the developmental Nationwide Tour's introduction anything more than a blip on the Twin Cities sporting landscape.

So that's why the third edition -- the last in an original three-year contract that brought the PGA Tour's feeder league to town -- reaches the first tee Thursday at Somerby Golf Club near Rochester, 80 miles and a demographical light-year away.

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Kevin Stadler's triumph in 2004 followed by U.S. Open sensation Jason Gore's 2005 victory failed to consistently attract anything approaching a crowd to big, modern Troy Burne in Hudson, Wis. So tour officials last summer proposed to the event's local presenters a venue more befitting the Nationwide's traditional markets.

The tour makes stops this season near Chicago, Miami and Houston, but it plays best, and most often, in destinations -- Boise and Omaha, West Virginia and Arkansas -- where there are no major league sports nor a notable golf championship anywhere on the horizon.

In Rochester, tournament organizers are hopeful more than 30,000 spectators (and dreaming about as many as 40,000) will pass through the gates this week for the golf and concerts on Friday and Saturday nights. More than 500 people -- well more than double the number the event attracted in the Twin Citeis -- have volunteered to serve as marshals, standard-bearers and other needed jobs.

Attendance at Troy Burne was creatively estimated at about 25,000 spectators -- a little more than that in 2004, a little less in 2005 -- during its two-season run there.

"The gallery sizes weren't as much as we expected," said Jim Lehman, tournament promoter SFX Golf's senior vice president. "Some people might say the weather last year was really, really hot -- stifling hot -- and that kept people away."

They also might say something about a guppy awash in the ocean.

Lehman's management group brought the Nationwide Tour to the Twin Cities after an annual charity event headlined by his brother, Tom, and featuring PGA Tour, LPGA and Champions Tour stars was played for the eighth and last time in 2002.

The Showdown was promoted as the second-greatest competitive brand of golf on the planet, but a tour with such alumni as Tom Lehman, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk and David Toms produces the stars of tomorrow, not today.

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A newcomer named Camilo Villegas went about his business unnoticed last summer at Troy Burne, finishing tied for 21st. Eight months later, he became a rock star after he had three PGA Tour top-three finishes in February and March. Mathew Goggin was an anonymous runner-up in 2004; on Sunday he tied Tiger Woods for second at the Western Open.

"Their games haven't changed," Jim Lehman said.

Still, that didn't play in a market that includes four major league sports teams, a popular Champions Tour event and has the U.S. Women's Open arriving in 2008 and the PGA Championship returning a year later. Well down the highway at Somerby -- a beautiful, brawny two-year-old course designed by Tom Lehman and John Fought -- the Nationwide Tour potentially is a marlin. Jim Lehman and tour officials will watch the tournament unfold this week and confer about bringing the event back to Somerby on a new contract.

"This is one of the biggest sporting events we've ever had down here," said Somerby Golf Club General Manager Brian Jones, who is hopeful the attention will help the fledgling private club attract members and sell homesites. "It gives southeast Minnesota an opportunity to put their arms around it and make it their franchise."

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