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Another mini-tour at Diablo

The mini-tour season has arrived in the valley with a few unexpected twists to the plot.

A field of 136 tees off Thursday in the $125,000 Diablo Grande Open, an affiliate of the U.S. Pro Golf Tour which makes its debut in California.

When Diablo Grande opted out of the Canadian Tour after one year, it added the USPGT Tour event. A field of 136, featuring several local players, will pursue a first-prize check of $16,250.

"You'll see a lot fresh faces out of college and some older players who've been around. The majority are under 25," tour director Steve Thorwald said. "They are young, talented and eager."

Thorwald called Elk Grove's Spencer Levin "a prototype of our tour." Levin, 22, is a former State Amateur champion who tied for 13th en route to low-amateur honors during the 2004 U.S. Open.

The USPGT, based in Orlando, Fla., has begun its third year and is bankrolled by Greens WorldWide Inc., a publicly traded company. It's been restructured and enlarged this year and features one major circuit and two regional feeder tours:

The USPGT Tour, a 10-event swing boasting $300,000 purses. It kicked off last week in Texas when Joe Lanza defeated Steve Friesen on the fourth playoff hole. Both players will take part in Diablo Grande because there is room in the field.

The California Series beginning this week at Diablo Grande with the first of 16 tournaments. The series covers for the downsizing of the Spanos Tour to its single banner event in Stockton along with the demise of the Golden State Tour.

The Tight Lies Series, another 16-event tour centered in Texas and the Southwest. The USPGT and the Tight Lies Tour merged this year.

Both the California and Tight Lies events will feature $125,000 purses. Players hope to graduate from the California and Tight Lies to the primary USPGT tournaments.

"Mini-tours historically come and go because of inadequate financing," Thorwald said. "We have a solid backing behind us."

Familiar names in the field are ex-Cal State Stanislaus stars Marc Lawless, John Cook, Manteca's Stan Mathews and amateur Ryan Thornberry of Ceres. Also entered are Modesto's Marc Peterson, Stockton's Andy Barnes, Napa's J.J. Jakovac and Levin.

They'll tackle Diablo Grande's Ranch course, a demanding par-72 test that should play more difficult than its Legends West neighbor. Purdue product Lee Williamson won the Canadian Tour stop last year by shooting a 16-under-par 272 over 72 holes at the Legends.

"The Ranch course at Diablo Grande is one of my favorites," Lanza said. "It's not easy, by any means, but the conditions will be great and it will be an unreal test for all of us."

The field will be cut to the low 50 and ties after the second round Friday, leading to the Saturday finish. The California Series then journeys to San Juan Oaks near San Juan Bautista next week.

From there, the satellite tours accelerate into overdrive in Northern California. The Canadian Tour returns to Stockton's Brookside Country Club for the Northern California Classic on April 19-22, preceded by the San Jose International April 12-15. The Nationwide Tour comes back to Wente Vineyards in Livermore for the Livermore Valley Wine Country Championship on March 29-April 1.

Volunteers are sought for the tournament this week at Diablo Grande. Call 892-4653 or Tom Heenan at 760-580-6725.

THE SHAG BAG — Atwater's Matt Hansen, a Nationwide regular this year. has made one cut in two events — a tie for 32nd ($3,474) in New Zealand. He's scheduled to play in Livermore. ... Former three-time PGA Tour winner Dick Lotz enjoyed a full booking of lessons Monday during his appearance at McHenry Golf Center.

HOLE-IN-ONE — Kirk Engel, San Jose, 179-yard fourth at Stevinson Ranch, 6-iron.

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