Sports

Wichita Open: Golfers are on the brink of instant promotion to PGA

When Martin Piller looks down Crestview Country Club's first fairway at 12:30 p.m. today, some good daydreams over the past four days will be forgotten.

"I don't let myself off the hook," said Piller, one of 156 golfers who will compete for the 21st Wichita Open title over the next four days on Crestview's North course. "I demand a lot of myself on the golf course."

Those high standards have helped the 24-year-old Piller, a second-year pro from Dallas, move into elite company on this season's Nationwide Tour. With his victory at the Cox Classic on Sunday in Omaha, Piller joined Tommy "Two Gloves" Gainey as the tour's only two-time winners in 2010.

The conventional incentive for Nationwide pros is to finish among the top 25 money leaders over the 29-tournament season and earn a PGA Tour card for 2011. Then there's the express lane. Since 1997, the tour has awarded a "battlefield promotion" — an instant bump to the PGA Tour — for any player who wins three Nationwide tournaments in one season.

Gainey, who will turn 35 next week, and Piller are trying to become the 10th golfers to achieve the feat.

"It's on my mind for sure," said Gainey, whose victory at the Chiquita Classic on July 18 made him the tour's first multiple winner this season. "But I'm trying not to think about it because it's business as usual, as they say."

Jamie Lovemark, who tops the Nationwide money list with $346,621, bypassed the Wichita Open. But Gainey and Piller are

part of a solid field that includes 21 of the top 25 on the money list and 40 of the top 50.

Ten of the other 13 golfers who have won this season will play at Crestview, adding to the scope of the two-time winners' challenge.

"It's tough to win out here," said Gainey, who has split 80 tournaments equally between the PGA and Nationwide tours since winning the Golf Channel's "Big Break VII," a reality series that featured skills competitions. "I was just lucky enough and fortunate enough to win twice."

The next step can be the hardest.

Chris Smith earned the three-victory promotion the first year it was available. In 2001, Heath Slocum, Chad Campbell and Pat Bates pulled it off. Jason Gore, who is in this year's Wichita Open field, did it in 2005 and Michael Sim was the most recent, accomplishing it last year.

Gainey and Piller are the 45th and 46th two-time winners since the tour began offering the promotion.

"Out here, it's tough every week and there's a lot of good players," said Piller, who played in Wichita last year as a rookie and tied for 46th. "If you start focusing on the results, it can affect you.

"It is cliche to think shot by shot, but it's the best method.... It gets you out of your own way."

Piller, a Texas A&M graduate, earned his first victory at the Stadion Athens Classic in May. Gainey got his a month later at the Melwood Prince George's County Open, then struck again three tournaments later by matching the tour's 54-hole scoring record en route to the Chiquita Classic victory.

Even with a PGA Tour card assured for next season, Gainey has kept playing. The Wichita Open will be his fifth tournament in five weeks.

"I want to keep going because every tournament that I take off is one less chance to get number three," said Gainey, a Bishopville, S.C., resident. "I'm just trying to do my thing. I love playing this game. Sometimes I need to take a step back because I love it so much that I don't want to quit."

Piller's affinity for golf is high now, as well. He fired a 9-under-par 62 — his best round as a pro — Saturday at the Cox Classic. Then Piller, who leads the tour in putting average, followed it with a 64 to edge veteran Dicky Pride by two shots.

Piller's recent victory allowed him to consider the possibilities.

"I'd be lying if I said it didn't enter my mind," Piller said. "I can think about it when I'm not on the course, but when it comes time for me to play the tournament, I'll be focused on hitting shots.

"It's a cool deal that the Nationwide Tour has, and I'm just blessed to be in this position."

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