This could well be my last National Post golf column for the year….
Chris Baryla started his golf season with plenty of questions about where he was going and little sense of where he might end up. Despite this uncertainty, his final destination might just be the PGA Tour.
A pair of fourth-place finishes this month on the Nationwide Tour — one in Cleveland, another in Oregon last week — has led the 23-year-old Baryla to believe he has a good opportunity to join Mike Weir and Stephen Ames in the limelight of the PGA Tour.
“I’m not a huge goal-setter, but I think I can end up in the top 35 on the Nationwide Tour [Baryla is currently 50th] and get in the final stage of Q-School,” he said.
Like just about everything about the Vernon, B.C. native, there has been nothing conventional about Baryla’s route in professional golf. He qualified for the 2003 U.S. Open as an amateur and, later that summer, became the first Canadian amateur in 20 years to make the cut at a Canadian Open. But his transition to the professional ranks in 2005 was not easy. Baryla managed a second-place finish on the Canadian Tour, but he also missed numerous cuts. And he realized the Canadian Tour was not where he wanted to be.
“I thought about what I was doing and knew I didn’t want to be playing the Canadian Tour in two or three years,” Baryla said. “I also knew that the PGA Tour qualifying school could be a crapshoot. If you don’t play well, you’re done.”
Baryla, who graduated from the University of Texas-El Paso with a business degree and a 3.5 grade-point average, came up with an unusual plan. Despite limited financial resources, he decided he would play on the Nationwide Tour, golf’s equivalent of Triple-A baseball. There was a problem with his plan: Baryla had no status on the tour. That meant he would have to show up at tournaments and win one of 14 spots open through Monday qualifying. It was a daunting route to consider and one rarely taken by Canadian golfers due to the expense and unpredictability of the venture. A couple of bad shots at a Monday event can send a golfer heading for the airport before the tournament even begins.
“It is a different mindset,” Baryla admitted. “Sure there’s a lot of pressure, but you know what you need to do each Monday. You need to shoot 67 or 68. You just need to get it done.”
In Baryla’s case, the gamble paid off. In his first tournament on the Nationwide Tour in April he finished ninth, meaning he could tee it up the following week (any golfer finishing in the top 25 is exempt for the next tournament). Though he wasn’t strong at every event, he played well in June, before making a significant breakthrough in September.
Baryla said the cost of being out on the Nationwide Tour is between $1,000 and $2,000 per week, an expensive endeavour if you don’t manage to play through to the weekend. The expense is one of the reasons few people have followed the path Baryla has chosen.
If he had not managed to play his way into a couple of tournaments early in the year, Baryla may not have continued Monday qualifying. Now qualifying is a thing of the past.
He has five tournaments left to crack the top 20 on the tour’s money list, which will give him immediate playing privileges on the PGA Tour next year. At the very least, he should enter the PGA Tour’s daunting Q-School in the final stage and have the opportunity to play on the Nationwide Tour next year if his quest for a card fails.
“It is a very fine line between making it and not making it,” Baryla said. “There’s lots of guys and friends on the Canadian Tour that have as much or more talent than the guys I’m playing [on the Nationwide Tour]. It is just a question of making a breakthrough.”