Bates returns to familar surroundings

Ben Bates will play in his Nationwide Tour-record 402nd tournament when the Wichita Open begins Thursday at Crestview Country Club.

Certainly enough for the 49-year-old Bates to take one for granted. But with a sponsor's exemption in hand, he won't.

"I'm so thankful to be here," said Bates, whose first of two professional victories came in the 1997 Wichita Open at Willowbend. "I've always played a lot of events. Since 1990, I've pretty much been exempt. This is the first year I haven't exactly been able to play whenever I've wanted to."

Bates played in the PGA Tour's Transitions Championship in March, missing the cut. He's played in three Nationwide events, tying for 56th at the Mexico Open in June.

When he tees off with Kevin Chappell and Joe Affrunti at 7 a.m. Thursday, Bates will make his 15th Wichita Open appearance, a tournament record. Of the five cuts he made last year, one came at Crestview, where he tied for 38th.

For the second straight year, Bates will employ Crestview member and two-time Kansas Women's Amateur champion Katy Nugent as his caddie. The pair also teamed up in Monday's shootout event, which featured Nationwide pros and top local female amateurs in a scramble format.

"She's a great player and she's got great accolades," Bates said of Nugent, who is transferring to Kansas this fall after playing two seasons at Arkansas. "She's going to do nothing but help me. She was great last year and we made the cut, and hopefully this year, we'll do a little bit better."

Bates, who played on the PGA Tour from 1998-2001, acknowledged the struggles of playing without status that got him into so many events through the years.

"It's been a tough year, but on the other side, I don't really have a lot of pressure on me," he said. "It's not like I'm sitting 26th on the money list, so I'm coming in with a pretty open mind about what's going on and I'll just try to have fun."

Rising rookie — Rookie James Hahn's recent hot streak has put him in position to make a quick leap to the PGA Tour next year.

Hahn, 28, was 33rd on the tour money list at the end of June. But with three top-10 finishes in his last four tournaments, including a tie for third at last week's Cox Classic, Hahn has vaulted to 12th.

No. 1 not here — Jamie Lovemark, who extended his lead on the tour money list to more than $19,000 over second-place Tommy Gainey, will not play this week.

Lovemark, the 2007 college player of the year as a freshman at Southern California, leads the tour with $346,621 in earnings. His final-round scoring average is 67.70 is also the tour's best.