Not every player who competes on the Nationwide looks at it as a developmental tour. Some, like Tommy Tolles, see it as a chance to get back to where they once were.
Tolles, who earned $3.5 million during seven years (1995-2002) playing against guys like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, never did win a PGA Tour event. But he had plenty of fantastic finishes, including a second in the Players Championship, a third in the Masters and a tie for third in the PGA Championship.
He can still go low with the best of them, even if the competition is not as great. Should he hold the lead in the Gila River Classic today, he'll be a lock to return to the big leagues for 2004.
"I've had my fair share of opportunities out here (this season), and I haven't done a lot with them . . . the worst being the debacle in Chicago (LaSalle Bank Open), where I led by three in the final round (and ended up as the runner-up),'' said Tolles, who is at 15-under 201 with a one-shot lead over four players heading into the final round at Whirlwind Golf Club in Chandler.
"I guess I've always struggled off the tee during my career. But this week I've done a good job of keeping it in play. After three days, I've only hit it in the thick stuff (rough) three times, and I didn't (save par) once, so I've learned my lesson.''
Tolles, who does have two wins on this tour when it was called the Nike in mid-1990s, was nearly perfect Saturday. Trailing by three strokes to start the afternoon, he glided around the tight Cattail track with a bogey-free 65 that included seven birdies. Among the highlights were a chip-in at the sixth hole, and a 55-foot snake at the 16th.
He'll need more of that today, when he tries to fend off second-round co-leader Brian Wilson (69), John Elliott (65) and the Freeman brothers — Robin (65) and Jeff (66). In all, 19 other players are within five shots of the lead, which certainly isn't out of it when it comes to the instant-offense mentality of the Nationwide.
Should Tolles prevail, he would earn $85,000 from the purse of $475,000, which would vault him all the way from 26th on the money list ($130,659) into the top 10. The top 20 money winners at the end of the season — only three weeks away — all earn cards next season on the PGA Tour.
ON THE FRINGE: Brothers Robin Freeman, 44, and Jeff Freeman, 41, who are both at 14 under, came within a player of being paired together today. It didn't matter, as both have a personal game each time they tee it up competing for In-N-Out Burgers.
"I don't think I've ever won one from him . . . maybe it will happen (today),'' said Jeff, who lost this round by a shot. Both were hot, as Robin made 10 birdies, a double and a bogey for 65, which equaled the day's best round. Jeff holed seven birdies before a bogey cost him the burger.
Scott Sterling recorded the second hole-in-one of the tournament, to go along with Tripp Isenhour's ace in Round 1. Sterling's came at the sixth hole, where he launched a radar-like 8-iron from 165 yards. It was the 25th hole-in-one on the Nationwide this season.
Tee times begin at 7:18 a.m. today, with the leaders going off at 12:15 p.m.