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Ben Hogan's company has funded a tour for pros aiming at the big time

Ben Hogan, golf's most famous recluse, had but four words of advice when he surfaced last October to launch the Ben Hogan Tour. He told the aspiring players, "Watch out for buses." Hogan didn't have to elaborate. He was nearly killed in 1949 when the car he was driving home to Texas after the Phoenix Open collided with a bus east of El Paso.

The 30-city Hogan Tour was designed so that financially strapped pros on the fringe of the PGA Tour could drive from site to site, as touring pros did in Hogan's day, pulling into such precincts as Wichita, Kans., Texarkana, Ark., and Amarillo, Texas, in successive weeks. The idea caught on immediately, and since the tour began in Bakersfield, Calif., on Feb. 2, the pros have been driving in droves.

Last week's pit stop, the 10th on the tour, was Macon, Ga., where the Hogan hero was, appropriately enough, last year's driving distance leader on the PGA Tour. Ed Humenik, 30, shot an 11-under-par 205 in his second Hogan tournament after driving from his home in Hobe Sound, Fla.

The Hogan offers something far more precious than frequent-flier miles: namely, a chance to make it on the PGA Tour. This year's top five Hogan money-winners will receive one-year exemptions on the Tour in 1991. According to Mike Springer, currently sixth on the Hogan list, the lure of the big time is all that's needed to torch a golfer's furnace. "Nobody wants to play on this tour," he says.

The 77-year-old Hogan, whose golf equipment and apparel manufacturing company puts up a $100,000 purse each week, will be happy to hear that. "The idea is to move up or move out," says 25-year-old John Kernohan, who is in danger of doing the latter. For while the Hogan Tour, according to its publicity, was "designed to help up-and-coming young professionals...prepare to play the PGA Tour," reclamation projects like Rick Pearson and Dick Mast have been pounding the rookies. Veterans Pearson, 31, and Mast, 39, who both fell off the PGA Tour, are currently one and two on the Hogan money list.

The Hogan is composed of the top 50 players who failed to qualify at the PGA Tour's December Q school, and the top 25 finishers in January's Hogan Tour qualifying tournament. In addition, there is a small cast of characters—Kernohan included—who made neither cut and must qualify each Monday for the Hogan's 54-hole events.

Mast won $128,568 on the big tour in 1988 but finished out of the top 125 money-winners in '89, losing his card and his confidence. "I don't feel I've scratched my potential," says Mast, who turned pro in 1972. "I don't know why, but I'm here to find out." Most of Mast's journey of rediscovery has been made with his pregnant wife, Roberta, and their four children in a Chevy van. "It has room for the Indians to climb the walls," he says. "I carry a Ping-Pong paddle in my pocket and keep reasonable peace."

Last week, the players' parking lot at River North Country Club in Macon had more vans than the Amsterdam telephone book. Springer's is the Chevy with California license plates 4CRYSTL. Crystol is Springer's caddie and wife; the couple vowed to hit all 30 tournaments together after 24-year-old Mike won in Bakersfield and banked $20,000. Three weeks ago in Pensacola, Fla., the van was stolen and recovered, minus a camcorder and Crystol's clothes.

The '87 Volkswagen bus in the River North lot belongs to Kernohan, who was married Dec. 29 in his native Bowling Green, Ky. He and his blushing caddie, Frederica, drove west on their honeymoon, stopping in Lake Tahoe, Salt Lake City, the Grand Canyon and San Francisco before John spent the first day on his new job failing to qualify in Bakersfield. He finished eighth the next week in Yuma, Ariz., where he and Frederica parked for the night in a friend's driveway. There, for the second time since their travels began, someone tried to break into the VW while the owners were sleeping inside. Now the Kernohans travel with more than mere Fahrvergnügen. "It's legal to keep a gun in the home," John says. "And this is my home."

On the road, the Kernohans convoy with PGA veteran Beau Baugh, 38, who dispenses tips on putting and engine maintenance from his '77 orange VW bus. In fact, many of the players have forged friendships on the freeways that have remained intact on the fairways. The youngest player on the Hogan Tour, 22-year-old Sean Pacetti, is fourth on the money list with $30,547. In a tight match in Panama City Beach, Fla. Pacetti felt comfortable enough to retrieve the ball from the cup after a 40-foot birdie putt by his partner, Pearson, and sling it into a lagoon. "You wouldn't see that on the big tour," Pacetti says through his braces. "[They're] a buncha robots."

"The people here are easygoing," says Mast. "It's refreshing."

Among the other refreshments served up on the tour are Esteban Toledo, 27, who was a professional lightweight boxer before turning golf pro in '85; JC Anderson, 28, who drives righthanded and putts lefthanded, though he's just as adept the other way around; and Dave Tentis, 27, the prototypical player on the Hogan. His game is currently "a disaster," Tentis admits, but he would rather be blowing up in Macon than in Manila or Medicine Hat. Since turning pro five years ago, Tentis has played, along with many of his current colleagues, on the Asian, African and Canadian tours. Once he played in a pro-am before the Delhi Open in India, where his amateur partners were a pair of government pooh-bahs tailed by four machine-gun-toting bodyguards in suits. "There were another three or four guys in fatigues who would occasionally pop out from behind the trees," Tentis says.

After shooting a 77 on Friday at River North, Tentis went for a jog, then withdrew from the tournament and drove to Texas to consult a friend who might be able to fix his swing. Others returned from their rounds to the locker room, where they tuned the tube to ESPN's PGA coverage and talked somberly of how close they had come in Q school.

"I had nine holes left with a three-stroke cushion," says Anderson, before his voice trails off.

"Last fall I missed by one stroke after 108 holes," says Pearson. One stroke. So near and yet so far, like the two-hour drive from River North to Augusta National. In a sense, that's the longest haul on the 13,000 miles of the Hogan Tour.

It's a trip all of these guys would like to make, but for more reasons than are obvious. "I just love driving to places I've never seen before," says Anderson. "Playing three rounds gives me an extra day to see the sights."

The sights. "The Big Sur in California," says Kernohan. "In Pensacola, we toured an aircraft carrier. I always try to see the national parks."

"I'm not a real fan of flying," says Pearson, who travels with his wife, April, and their four-year-old son and 17-month-old daughter. "I'd rather have all of my stuff together, with me. Pull off and see the Statue of Liberty. Niagara Falls. The Grand Canyon. All the states you miss if you fly over them."

Pearson, who has already earned $60,386 this year, seems a lock to finish in the quintet atop the Hogan money list. And while those five will hit the big tour, each will also miss this little one. You can't see the PGA in your Chevrolet.



Springer and his caddie-wife, Crystal, have vowed to make it to all 30 events on the tour.



Mast, who lost his PGA Tour card in 1989, is rebuilding his confidence on the new circuit.



Pacetti (above) likes the pace of the Hogan; freeway friends stick together till the end.