A Round With Jerry Jurgensen

The sponsor of the PGA's developmental tour shows off his game at Muirfield Village

When CEOs of major companies set out to sponsor a pro golf event, most hitch their wagon to the PGA Tour -- allowing them to bask in the aura of superstars such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Ernie Els. Not Jerry Jurgensen. Two years ago, the CEO of Nationwide, based in Columbus, Ohio, signed a five-year, $50 million deal to succeed Buy.com as the umbrella sponsor of the PGA's developmental tour, where aspiring pros like Ryuji Imada and Bubba Watson toil in hopes of earning a promotion to the big leagues.

There was method to Jurgensen's underdog approach. An ardent golfer who counts PGA Tour pros Loren Roberts and Kirk Triplett as close friends, Jurgensen sensed that with the talent pool deepening, the developmental tour -- now known as the Nationwide Tour -- was gaining in popularity. "I got the idea in my head that the PGA Tour was already at 100 percent capacity -- they can't add any more players or tournaments -- and this [developmental] tour was starting to take off," he says. "We had the chance to become part of the vocabulary of a sport, rather than just the sponsor of a tournament."

So far, Jurgensen's hunch appears to be paying dividends for the insurance giant he joined four years ago: Its tour generated 630 million media impressions -- the number of distinct times the Nationwide Tour was viewed on TV or in print -- through July of this year, a 30% increase over the same period in 2003. At the same time, Jurgensen appreciates the gratitude of the young tour players, many of whom readily agree to play rounds with Nationwide employees and their clients before the tournaments. "I wrote a congratulatory letter to everyone who won last year, and every single one either phoned or wrote me back to say thanks for allowing them to chase their dreams," he says.

Indeed, even as Jurgensen has agreed to walk 18 on a muggy August morning in Dublin, Ohio, with a guest at Muirfield Village Golf Club -- site of Jack Nicklaus' annual Memorial Tournament and the first course Jurgensen played after moving to Columbus four years ago -- he can't stop talking about the Nationwide Tour. While Buy.com had little involvement with the tour beyond writing the sponsorship check, Jurgensen's staff has taken a hands-on role, down to helping pick the playing venues to ensure that the tour expands into markets that are important to Nationwide. Jurgensen himself plays in one pro-am event on the Nationwide Tour each year, and last year played in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am with Zach Johnson, the Nationwide Tour's leading money-winner in 2003.

The 53-year-old executive took up golf in his late 30s. Prior to that -- before his knees began to give out -- baseball was his game: He pitched on his college team at Regis University in Denver, then later played slow-pitch softball while a banker for Norwest Corp. His first golf teacher was Paul Purtzer, a Minneapolis club pro whose brother Tom is a well-known PGA Tour player. "He had a baseball swing that we had to correct," recalls Purtzer. "But he was an extremely quick learner."

Indeed, under Purtzer, Jurgensen slashed his handicap from 18 to 9 in the first year alone. He's now down to a mere 2.5, earning him the No.2 spot on Golf Digest's 2004 rankings of the best CEO golfers. One of his favorite playing partners is his wife, Patty, a 19-handicapper in her own right, as well as his two grown children whenever they're in town visiting.

His passion for golf extends to equipment: He admits to owning a couple hundred clubs that he keeps at his houses in Columbus and Scottsdale, Ariz. "I'm always prowling the used-club bins at golf shops," he says. Then he stops and grins: "You know, if you print that, I'll get in trouble with my wife, because she has never stopped and counted." On this particular morning, Jurgensen is playing with a TaylorMade r7 quad driver, Titleist 704.CB blade irons, and Sonartec NP-99 fairway woods.

Backyard Putting

In other years, Jurgensen routinely played as many as 100 rounds annually. Given the demands of his current job, though, he has recorded just 40 rounds this year through late August, mostly weekends and partial rounds after work. (Thanks to the fact that Columbus sits at the far western side of the Eastern time zone, Jurgensen can play until after 9 p.m. during the summers.) To keep his short game tuned, he installed an artificial putting green in his backyard in Columbus. (He was so impressed by the green that he took a small stake in the company that makes it, TourTurf Holding LLC, based in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.)

Jurgensen couldn't have picked a tougher day to tackle Muirfield Village, which a friend who's a member allowed him to play as an unaccompanied guest. Heavy rains earlier in the week, coupled with recent aerification, mean the course is playing considerably longer than the 7,265 yards listed as the distance from the back tees that Jurgensen chooses to use.

On his opening tee shot, he displays a long, fluid swing, with a prolonged pause at the top. He crushes the drive about 290 yards but it drifts into a clump of trees bordering the left side of the fairway. (As I soon discover, most of his drives routinely carry 280 yards.) Yet for such a brute off the tee, he demonstrates a surprisingly soft touch around the greens, which he attributes to recent lessons with Stan Utley, the short-game guru to many tour pros. After threading his second shot neatly through an opening in the trees and onto the green some 160 yards away, he two-putts to save a par on the first hole.

He flirts with trouble again on No.3, which he warns is one of the trickiest holes on the course, mainly because of a devilish creek that meanders along the fairway and crosses in front of the green. Jurgensen pushes his drive off to the light rough on the right, then dunks his second shot into the creek. He takes a drop, pitches onto the green, and with two putts, walks off with a double bogey. "See what I told you?" he says as we saunter to the fourth tee.

Tin Cup Kid

Jurgensen quickly hits his stride, playing the next five holes at just one over par, thanks in part to a birdie on No.7. On the ninth hole, a 407-yard par 4, he plays his tee shot safely into the fairway but lands his approach shot in the small pond fronting the green. Agitated, he fishes a ball out of his pocket and plops it at his feet. When I gently remind him that he's entitled to play his next shot much closer to the hole -- at the edge of the pond, to be exact -- he declines. "Nah," he says, "I'm going to do this just like Tin Cup" -- a reference to the Kevin Costner movie character who stubbornly drops shot after shot into a pond on the last hole of the U.S. Open. Jurgensen's next shot not only carries the pond but the green as well. With a chip and a putt, he cards another double bogey for a 41 on the front nine.

After a bogey on the 10th hole, Jurgensen plays the next six holes at two over par. The key: a pair of deft chip shots on Nos. 12 and 15 that let him save par on both holes. Jurgensen salvages a bogey on the 17th with a beautiful bunker shot that stops dead a couple of feet from the hole. But trouble raises its head again on the par-4 18th when he hits his drive right into one of the bunkers that Nicklaus added in recent years, about 280 yards from the back tee. Jurgensen's bunker shot catches the front lip and comes to rest only a few yards away in the heavy rough. His third shot falls short of the green and into another bunker. All is not lost -- because he steps up and hits one of his best shots of the day, a sand shot that nestles to within two feet of the pin for a tap-in 5. Given that the back "Memorial" tees carry a course rating of 76.3 and a slope rating of 149, his final score of 82 registers as a solid outing that won't dent his handicap. Although Jurgensen has just acquitted himself well on one of the PGA Tour's toughest courses, the conversation quickly comes back to the Nationwide Tour. If the PGA follows through on a proposal to award world ranking points to top finishers at Nationwide events, Jurgensen believes that could entice more international players to join his tour. "[PGA Commissioner] Tim Finchem may hate to hear me say this, but I think in 10 years you could have two golf tours in the U.S. that are comparable in talent, like the old AFL and NFL."

While the developmental tour has endured a parade of sponsors such as Nike (NKE ) and Buy.com that eventually chose not to renew their contracts, just two years into his current deal, Jurgensen is hoping Nationwide remains a fixture on the pro golf scene for years to come. "You never know what happens at contract renewal, but I think the PGA Tour and Nationwide found each other at the right time," he says. The pairing may prove that gold is found on the path least taken.

By Dean Foust

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