DAYTON -- A PGA Tour card has never been easy to earn. Judging from scores during the first stage PGA Qualifying at Dayton Valley Golf Club the last three days, that task is only getting harder.
Mike Louden of Henderson shot 4-under par 68 on Thursday to emerge as the new leader after 54 holes of a closely packed field trying to earn an exempt PGA Tour card for the 2002 season. While Louden leads at 14-under par 202, there isn't much breathing room because an even dozen players are within six shots of the lead coming into the final round today at Dayton Valley.
The competition doesn't stop there, either. The top 22 finishers and all ties advance to the second stage qualifying and as it stands right now, 40 players are under par overall, a significant number considering the cut for last year's qualifier at Dayton Valley was even-par.
Give credit to ideal autumn conditions which have prevailed this week. And give credit to the players themselves.
"I just attribute that to the quality of players coming out of college. They are so much better now," said Steve Sear of Washoe Valley, who led through two round and is now third at 204, two shots behind Louden. "I've been to 16 BUY.COM qualifiers this year and I figure I've needed to shoot two shots better at each of those than I did last year. I expected much lower scores here as well ... all week, I've been thinking 5-under would be needed to make it."
Sear is right on target as it now stands because 22 players are right at the cut -- 5-under 211. If that holds up, it would be the lowest Q-school cut number in seven years at Dayton Valley.
Brett Wayment of Logan, Utah, was among seven players who finished 72 holes at even par 288 and moved on to a playoff to determine the final qualifiers last year at Dayton Valley. He shot 68 on Thursday to take over second-place behind Louden at 203.
"The players are better and the golf course is excellent, as always," said Wayment, who has advanced past the Dayton Valley qualifier each of the last six years. "That's why I like coming here, I can always count on good conditions."
Ryan Vermeer, one of those young lions just out of college, sees the difference in competition from last year. The former Kansas University standout stands at 208, tied for 12th in the field with Billy Harvey, a former high school state champion at Bonanza in Las Vegas who went on to play at BYU.
"Last year, I was 209 at this point and I went out with the last group. Right now, I'm one shot better and I'm only in the top 12," Vermeer said.
The 23-year-old Kansas University product well remembers last year's qualifier when he had struggled with a 79 for the final round and had to settle for first alternate at the end of the playoff. The finish to his 2000 season had a happier ending, though, because the alternate spot was good enough make it to the second stage and then he advanced to the finals.
Wayment is obviously a veteran of the Q-school process. In 1999, Wayment missed his Tour card by four strokes.
"There are a thousand different ways to get through Q-schools; I'm just trying not to treat it like a life or death situation because a lot of us don't get through but then come back and play well the next year," said Wayment, who made the turn at 4-under 32 on Thursday.
"I just set a game plan and try to keep going. It's like, here's the game plan, here's the golf course, you just try to play against the golf course and see what you can do."
Louden began Thursday in a three-way tie for the lead with Brian Kortan and Sear, and proceeded to move out front by himself with a solid round. He started out with birdies on the third and fourth holes and added two more on Nos. 10 and 12 before taking a bogey on No. 18.
Thursday's best scores of 67 were carded by Michael Kirk of North Las Vegas and Tom Kalinowski of Scottsdale, Ariz. Kirk is tied for ninth overall at 9-under 207, Kalinowski is tied for 26th at 3-under 213.
--Notes: Bryce Molder, a four-time All-American at Georgia Tech, is tied for 17th in the field at 6-under 210. Doug Quienalty, a former Carson City resident who now lives in Lake Charles, La., shot 77 on Thursday and is at 10-over 226 overall. Six sites will be used for the second stage qualifying -- three on Nov. 4-9: Stonebridge Country Club in McKinney, Texas, Black Horse Course in Seaside, Calif., and Kingwood/Deerwood Golf Club in Kingwood, Texas; and three more on Nov. 11-16: Hombre Golf Club in Panama City, Fla., Orange County National in Orlando, Fla., and Oak Valley Golf Club in Beaumont, Calif. The finals will be held at Bear Lakes Country Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., during the week of Nov. 26-Dec. 3.