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The Tour's Class of 2001 has held their own in the early stages of the 2002 PGA Tour campaign. Several of the competitors, who either joined the tour through Q-School or finishing in the top-15 of the 2001 Tour money list, have already been in the hunt for a victory on golf's premiere stage.

Perhaps the most prominent instance of a Tour player making an impact is Pat Perez, who graduated to the big dance by earning medalist honors at the grueling Qualifying School.

Perez held a one-shot lead over Matt Gogel standing on the majestic 18th tee at Pebble Beach Golf Club in the National Pro-Am. His drive landed out of bounds, under a hedge and forced him to take the lonely walk back to the tee to hit his third shot. That found the fairway but his fourth found the Pacific Ocean and crashed his hopes for the title like the waves that crashed into the rocks where his ball splashed.

"I don't know what I'll learn out of it," said Perez, immediately following the bitter defeat to Gogel at Pebble Beach.

Perez, now 12th on the tour's money list, may not have needed to learn anything out of the miscue at the 18th because the Tour has proved to be more than a minor league golfing tour.

Perez is not the only story so far in 2002. Rod Pampling, an Australian who played the Tour in 2001, has made four out of five cuts and is currently 38th on the money list. While that ranking may not sound high, consider it is higher than such names as Justin Leonard, Davis Love III, Mark Calcavecchia, Jesper Parnevik and perhaps the Tour's two most respected graduates: David Duval and Tom Lehman.

Two other players, Deane Pappas and John Rollins, who entered the tour through the top-15 on the 2001 money list, have also netted top-10 finishes on tour this year. Pappas tied for sixth at the Bob Hope Classic while Rollins shared eighth at the Buick Invitational.

With foreign players coming from all over the world to compete on the PGA Tour, there is not the same room in the fields for alternates and lesser talented players.

Fields that are now filled by Jose Maria Olazabal, Sergio Garcia, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Bernhard Langer and a laundry list of other top-notched international players mean that there is no place on the big tour for players with solid games but unrecognizable names. In years past, these players were content to play on the other side of the pond but now, thanks in part to Tiger Woods' dominance, the European Tour players know they have to compete on the best tour to best prepare themselves for major championships.

That is where the Tour comes in for the Pat Perezs of the world. It gives players who may not have exactly what it takes currently a venue to perfect their craft for the future. The level of competition is high because for every young player on the course, there is a former PGA Tour veteran who may have lost his card but certainly did not lose the experience he received on the PGA Tour.

Here is an indictment as to how the Tour has come along. David Sutherland missed several months on the PGA Tour last year due to a shoulder injury. When he was able to come back, he went to the Tour to get back into a competitive spirit, not right to the big tour.

In the end of August, Sutherland matched the tour's record for lowest opening 36-hole total with 127 and opened a six-shot lead halfway through the event, also tying a Tour record. When the tournament was over, Sutherland did win - by one shot over Danny Briggs.

A final factor that can not be overlooked when it comes to the rise to respectability is the determination factor. It is simple, if you win three times in one Tour season, you go to the PGA Tour and are exempt for one year. Your professional dreams are realized.

If you finish in the top-15 on the money list after the Tour Championship, you go to the show. If you succeed in the Tour, you will make it to the PGA Tour, golf's showcase.

Success on the Tour does not automatically translate into success at the highest level. For every Duval, Lehman or David Toms you see winning majors, there is Rob McKelvey, Andy Morse or any other player who wallows in obscurity, never making the grade.

Don't be surprised, however, if one day Chad Campbell or Heath Slocum is hoisting a PGA Tour trophy over his head.

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