Since 2002, the Charlotte-based eGolf Tour has stood tall as one of the most successful developmental golf tours in United States history, with purses reaching industry highs of $300,000 in 2009 and 2014, and record-setting participation numbers in excess of 200 players throughout the 2010 season.
Through the tour’s 13-year stretch, PGA TOUR winners such as Billy Horschel, Chris Kirk, Chesson Hadley, Brian Harman and countless others have honed their skills on the eGolf Tour, but it was Ryan Nelson of Charleston, who perhaps left the biggest impact as the circuit’s most dominant performer.
With six wins since the summer of 2011, Nelson entered this week’s River Hills Classic as a solid favorite, venturing out to a course that requires more brains than brawn – a necessity which paired well with his 37-year-old advantage of course management.
With rounds of 66-66-73-70 – 275 (13-under), the married father of two earned the seventh win of his tour career in what would be the proverbial swan song in a great run of tournament golf.
Nelson entered Saturday’s fourth and final round at 11-under par, tied alongside 2013 River Hills Classic champion Bruce Woodall of Yanceyville, N.C. with 18 holes to play on the 1969 Willard Byrd designed-course.
From the outset, three days of docile conditions on the Lake Wylie layout came to a screeching halt, with a steady wind wreaking havoc on a tough final-round setup featuring greens rolling well over 13 on the stimpmeter.
“Right from the start, I thought, ‘How in the world are you going to make birdies above the hole all day?’” said Nelson, who missed birdie tries inside 15 feet on Nos. 1 and 2. “The greens were firm and fast, and the hole locations were tough. I knew no one was going to shoot 8-under today.”
After six pars to open his round, the former University of Portland golfer hit red figures with a birdie on the par-4 seventh to go to 12-under for the week – one shot clear of Woodall.
On the tough par-4 eighth, a pulled tee shot by Woodall gave way to an unplayable lie and an untimely double-bogey that took the former UVA golfer down to 9-under par, dropping a distant three shots back in the span of 20 minutes.
Nelson bogeyed the par-4 ninth to turn in even-par 36, but still in control of the tournament with a two-shot cushion over Woodall and former PGA TOUR member Matt McQuillan of Ontario, Canada.
McQuillan, playing two groups in front of Nelson, bogeyed his first hole of the day after nearly topping his tee shot, but rallied with birdies on Nos. 4, 9 and 10 to vault to 10-under par for the week.
With birdies on 12 and 13, the unlikely blunder on the first tee box suddenly morphed into a share of the lead for McQuillan at 12-under par, matching Nelson atop the leaderboard after the overnight co-leader two-putted the 10th for a birdie.
On the uphill par-3 11th, Nelson connected on a 30-footer for birdie to move out of a share of the lead and back into sole possession at 13-under par.
“On 11, I didn’t hit the putt the way I wanted to, but when I looked up I thought, ‘It’s going on the exact line I want,’ and it went right in,” he said. “That was a huge putt for momentum for me.”
Nelson stuck a wedge to 10 feet on the par-4 13th to add yet another birdie to his card, in turn jumping to 14-under for the week – two shots clear of the field at the time.
A bogey on the par-4 15th dropped the two-time U.S. Open participant back to 13-under par, but the late-round hiccup coincided with a bogey-bogey collapse by McQuillan on 17 and 18 to put forth an actual one shot swing with three holes to play.
“After the bogey on 15, I thought I was only up one because I wasn’t exactly sure what Matt was doing,” Nelson said. “After I parred 16 and 17 – with 17 being my best swing of the day from 226 yards down the hill – I saw that I had a three shot lead. At that point, I knew I had some cushion with 18 to play.”
On the par-4 18th, with a plethora of members surrounding the green, Nelson hit two solid shots to 20 feet, and two putted for par to wrap up a final-round 70 and the seventh win of his impeccable eGolf Tour career.
“It’s bittersweet. I’m going to miss the staff. I’ve really enjoyed the quality of courses we’ve played, so now I head towards an unknown future,” said Nelson, who earned $11,250 with the victory. “It’s late in the year for me, but it’s always nice to get a win.”
Nelson entered the week in suburban Charlotte, with 10 top-25s this year in 11 starts, including a trio of top-5 finishes earlier in the season.
As one of the best mini-tour players in the country, the affable Pacific Northwest native is cognizant of the fact that the moniker bestowed upon him is flattering yet unfulfilling. Nelson is destined for the Web.com Tour, and from there the PGA TOUR. Time will tell if he gets there, but those who have watched him compete in person know he is due.
“It’s time to get it done during the right time of the year. That’s all it’s ever been for me, I just have to play well at the right time.”
McQuillan, despite his bogey-bogey finish, closed with a 2-under 70 to lock up solo-second-place honors at 10-under 278. He earned $7,250 for the week.
The 34-year-old spent 2011 and 2012 on the PGA TOUR, earning a pair of top-10 finishes during his rookie campaign – including a T3 effort at the John Deere Classic.
Adam Webb of Ridgeway, Va. was the only player on Saturday to break 70, birdieing the par-4 18th to finish off a 3-under 69 and 9-under 279 total – good for a season-best, third-place finish. He earned $6,084.
The River Hills Classic marks the end of the eGolf Tour after eGolf was acquired by Golf Interact on Wednesday, August 5th, with the tour set to be rolled under the existing Swing Thought Tour, based in Myrtle Beach.
The eGolf Tour was founded by David Siegel as the “Tarheel Tour” in 2002, contesting 20-24 events annually primarily in the states of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, paying out over $20 million in prize money since the 2009 season alone.
In March of 2011, the tour conducted two events in Morocco, in turn becoming the first United States-based tour to host multiple tournaments on the continent of Africa. In its 13-year history, the tour saw the likes of Billy Horschel, Chesson Hadley, Chris Kirk, Tommy Gainey, Scott Brown, Roberto Castro, Tom Gillis, Jason Kokrak, Brian Harman, Will MacKenzie, Jason Bohn, Steve Marino, Matt Bettencourt, William McGirt and others ascend to the PGA TOUR, with over 200 players moving up to the Web.com Tour.