By Brad King
Since 1990, the main highway to the PGA Tour has undergone more name changes than a Hollywood starlet. As tour sponsors for professional golf’s feeding ground have come and gone, what debuted as the Ben Hogan Tour quickly became the Nike Tour, then the Buy.com Tour, then the Nationwide Tour and for the past five years, the Web.com Tour.
Through all the transitions, however, one thing has remained constant —Raleigh’s Rex Hospital Open, which in early June celebrates its 30th anniversary. More than 150 professional golfers from around the world will compete for their PGA Tour cards at TPC Wakefield from June 1-4. The top 25 on the final Web.com Tour money list earn playing rights on the PGA Tour for following year.
“In my 10-plus years in golf I have seen many different events across all the tours and the Rex Hospital Open sits at the top,” said tournament director Brian Krusoe. “This tournament is run like a PGA TOUR event and has unbelievable support from the community.”
Three decades ago, then Rex Hospital Trustee Greg Poole Jr. traveled to Kentucky to play in an LPGA Pro-Am benefit tournament. Poole figured that a similar event could help raise money for Rex and the health care services it offered the community. Poole talked to his sister-in-law Dianne Dailey, who was then on the LPGA circuit. She took her case to the LPGA, Poole talked to his fellow Rex Hospital Trustees — and the Rex Classic was born.
From 1988 until 2004, the one-day Rex Classic LPGA Pro-Am was held at North Ridge Country Club. Then, following 17 years with the LPGA, Rex Hospital took the event in a new direction and signed an agreement with the PGA Tour to host a Nationwide Tour event called The Rex Hospital Open at TPC Wakefield Plantation in North Raleigh. Last year, UNC Rex Healthcare announced that TPC Wakefield Plantation would continue to host the Rex Hospital Open for another five years.
Poole’s vision of a successful fund-raiser for REX has certainly borne fruit. In its first 29 years the event has raised more than $9 million. The tournament’s charitable efforts, coupled with its family and fan-friendly environment, attract thousands of golf fans each spring.
Funds have been used for hospital projects and programs such as Cancer Awareness Programs, Cancer and Heart Disease Education and Detection Programs, a Cardiac Catheterization unit, the Rex Wellness Center, the Rex Women’s Center, funding of the Rex Mobile Mammography unit, a state of the art ambulance transport unit, Patient Assistance Programs and the brand new Heart & Vascular Hospital on the main UNC Rex Campus.
Last year, former University of Alabama golfer Trey Mullinax captured the Rex Hospital Open with a final score of 14-under. Mullinax’s come-from-behind victory represented his first win on the Web.com tour and his third top-10 finish. The tournament purse of $117,000 catapulted Mullinax from 33rd to fourth on the Web.com money list, and he eventually finished 18th for the year, earning his PGA Tour card.
“Out here (on the Web.com Tour) every dollar counts,” Mullinax said. “You don’t know if you’re gonna make your card by a $100 or $5, or $1,000. I just told myself just keep grinding, keep staying in the moment, and stick to everything, and I got hot on the back nine.”
This year’s Rex Hospital Open field includes 20 former PGA Tour winners with a combined 30 PGA Tour victories, 21 of the top 25 on the current Web.com money list and 17 foreign tour winners. Players with local ties scheduled to play include Raleigh-area natives Bo Andrews, Carter Jenkins and Ben Kohles, along with Albin Choi, an N.C. State alumnus who lives in Raleigh, and former Duke golfers Adam Long and Wes Roach.
In addition, three former Rex Hospital Open champions are expected to play, including Chesson Hadley — another Raleigh native and the 2013 tournament winner who was born at UNC Rex Hospital, and his wife had both their kids there — along with 2014 winner Byron Smith and Kyle Thompson, the only three-time Rex Hospital Open champion (2007, 2011 and 2015).
From handing out five PGA Tour cards in its inaugural season to 50 in 2013, the Web.com Tour — and its previous incarnations — have proven through the years that they are truly the paths to the PGA Tour.
Since 1990, 387 players have earned their PGA Tour cards through the Web.com Tour. Alumni have claimed more than 425 PGA Tour victories, 20 major championships and five FedEx Cup titles.
As the Web.com Tour continues to produce the best young talent in professional golf, the future of the Rex Hospital Open looks bright. Local and regional sponsorship support remains strong as companies want to get behind UNC Rex Hospital and the positive impact it has on the community.
“The Web.com Tour has become one of the strongest professional tours in the world and the level of play is amazing,” Krusoe said. “We continue to improve and create excitement each year and I encourage people to come see us the first weekend in June. They will not be disappointed.”