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Nationwide Tour talent gaining on PGA Tour

LIVERMORE — Nationwide Tour officials like to say their circuit is second in stature behind only the PGA Tour.

That assumes, of course, that you believe the PGA Tour is better than the European Tour, which these days is more than a minor point of contention.

Regardless, the Nationwide's reputation is hard to argue. Mark Wilson's victory Monday in the Honda Classic was the 200th on the PGA Tour by a Nationwide product.

The best of the Nationwide come to scenic Wente Vineyards, only an hour's drive from Modesto, for the second Livermore Wine Country Championship March 29-April 1.

"The NFL has 1,700 players who play every week. The PGA Tour has 156. If you add the players on the Nationwide, the number is more than 300," Nationwide spokesman Tim Benton said. "The PGA combined with the Nationwide Tour are the elite of their game in this country. There is virtually no difference."

Not true, of course. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, with help from Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen, would have gobbled up most of the Nationwide's $18 million purse spread over 32 tournaments this year.

That said, Benton's overall point is understood. Players such as Bob Hope champion Charley Hoffman, Brent Snedeker, Andrew Buckle and Jeff Quinney have jumped from the Nationwide to the PGA this year and enjoyed immediate success.

"We continue to see the evolution as the players go back and forth on the tours," Benton said. "The gap from a competition standpoint is going to narrow and is getting even smaller."

Pleasanton's Todd Fischer, a Nationwide regular this year after four years on the major tour, agrees.

"When you see what I've seen, you realize the competition out there," he said. "There are about 10 guys on the PGA Tour who stand out every week. They're the elite."

Fischer didn't continue his line of thought, but we will: After those 10 top-tier players, the rest — PGA, Nationwide, mini-tours, etc. — occupy one dog-eat-dog second layer.

At Wente Vineyards, the Nationwide field will find a tough and relentless test as it strolls through the vineyards and climbs the hillsides.

How tough is Greg Norman's 7,185-yard par-72, you ask? More than tough enough: Last year's rain and wind-ravaged tournament, won at 9-under-par 279 by Tripp Isenhour, produced an average score of 2.881 over par. Not only was this the highest above-par average on the Nationwide Tour in 2006, it also was the second-highest average among all 78 venues played on the PGA and Nationwide circuits last year. The toughest was Winged Foot (plus 4.993) at the U.S. Open.

"In good weather, I still suspect we'll stay in the top five in terms of difficulty," Benton said.

Wente Vineyards, opened in July of 1998, presents three settings in one. It opens with a tee shot to a fairway 100 feet below, then meanders for a few holes through woodlands and finally to fairways bordered by the Wente vineyards.

Phase Two kicks in with a series of hillside holes featuring an eight-switchback climb to the 10th tee, the introduction to holes among the hilltops. Finally, the four-hole finish returns to the valley, featuring the split 18th fairway and its water-guarded green.

"I haven't played any finer public course than the Pebble Beach Golf Links," Norman wrote in his description of Wente Vineyards. "But if you take away the esthetics of Pebble Beach, such as its location by the Pacific Ocean, then you can stack Wente Vineyards right up there."

Admission is free for the practice rounds. From there, it's $10 per ticket the first two rounds and $20 per ticket for the weekend rounds. A Thursday-Sunday pass costs $30. Visit www.winecountrychampionship.com/tickets, or call 925-447-2200. The Golf Channel will televise all four days.

THE SHAG BAG — Dana Arnold-Ebster of Modesto, a former winner on the mini-tours, will join the staff of instructors at McHenry Golf Center ... The First Tee of Modesto opens its spring instruction session today at Modesto Municipal. ...

Qualifying for the Nationwide stop in Livemore will be held Monday, March 26, at Ruby Hill in Pleasanton and Castlewood CC. The 14 available spots in the field will be split between the two sites. The entry fee is $350. Call Nancy Maul, 707-449-4742. ... The canceled Canadian Tour event at Diablo Grande will be replaced by the hastily-scheduled San Jose International Open at Boulder Ridge in San Jose April 12-15. The $100,000 tournament, though not an official Canadian Tour event, invites the tour members. The event director is John McCarthy, owner-operator of the California Golf Tour and a veteran of the California golf scene for three decades. Players are sought for the charity pro-am April 10. The cost is $500 per contestant, $1,350 for a threesome. Call McCarthy, 760-564-3570.

HOLES-IN-ONE — Chris Erbe, Turlock, 252-yard 18th at River Oaks, Ceres, 3-wood ... Chuck Jett, Twain Harte, 160-yard seventh at Mountain Springs, Sonora, 8-iron.

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