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Golf Life: Jerry Jurgensen, Nationwide CEO

Jerry Jurgensen isn't just a 1.9-handicap. He's become a legendary CEO in professional golf circles. When Nationwide swooped in to pick up the sponsorship of a struggling developmental tour, a lot of people thought he was crazy. Jurgensen has been proven right by the success of the Nationwide Tour and its impact on his bottom line. Here, Jurgensen talks about being a tour sponsor, learning from tomorrow's top players and his own game.

The Nationwide Tour has become one of the hottest things in golf. Did you expect that to happen when you signed on as sponsor three years ago?
Timing in life is everything. A couple things naturally came together. For ten years Nationwide sponsored a Champions Tour event in Atlanta. We ended that in 2000. A year or two went by and the PGA Tour came to us with a proposal. That happened at a time when we had decided to ramp up our marketing activities and expand the business. We were reviewing all the options for increasing our brand awareness. In the course of that conversation they mentioned the possibility of taking over the umbrella sponsorship of the Buy.com Tour.

Wasn't that much more expensive?
Yes, but we found that the most coverage we'd get from a single event was about two weeks a year—and four days under most circumstances. The umbrella sponsorship gave us fifty-two weeks a year of coverage. Second, we were going to be a prime feature on the Golf Channel, which is reaching more and more of the country. So we studied what was happening in professional golf and concluded that the PGA Tour in a business sense is operating at or close to 100 percent capacity: There are more players than spots to play. I figured this tour, which started out as a developmental tour, was going to increasingly become an extension of the PGA Tour itself.

That seems to have happened.
Absolutely. The ability to retain a Tour card is getting harder and harder. If you take the top thirty players on the Nationwide Tour and compare them to the bulk of card-carrying players, there is only a slight difference. These guys can play. That has been borne out in what happened with the graduating class of 2003 last year: Eight of the twenty finished in the top 100 on the PGA Tour money list, two in the top twenty-five, and five won tournaments. Zach Johnson and Mark Hensby each earned more than $2 million. And every time one of these players is in the hunt on Saturday or Sunday, mentions are made of Nationwide. In 2004 the Nationwide Tour name was mentioned in the media 630 million times.

How'd you get into golf?
I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. I was a baseball player. I pitched in college for Creighton University. I took up golf in my thirties and was fortunate to have started out with a very good teacher before I could develop bad habits. I went from an eighteen or twenty handicap to a nine in one summer.

Can you keep up with the Nationwide players?
They annihilate me. All good amateurs will tell you—if they are honest—that they aren't even close. The leap between amateur golf and professional golf is so great that it isn't a matter of the mathematical difference in handicap.

What have you learned from these guys?
The same success factors apply to business. You need self-confidence, patience and perseverance. Guys in their late thirties are still clawing and scratching to make it, and they are as good as anyone I've ever seen. The hardest thing about the PGA Tour is getting on the PGA Tour. People have a notion that it's a glamorous life, but it's a grind. You drive everywhere because you can't afford to fly. A few years ago, Hensby was living in his car. In 2003 the Nationwide Tour champion, Chris Couch, was down to his last $100 when one of his buddies loaned him $500 for the entry fee and food for one more event, and he won it. These players have wonderful messages to convey to the youth of America about hard work.

Scorecard JERRY JURGENSEN
AGE 53
HANDICAP 1.9
BEST ROUND 68 at the Knollwood Club, Lake Forest, IL
FAVORITE COURSES Pebble; Cypress; Pine Valley; Augusta; Crystal Downs
EQUIPMENT TaylorMade r7 driver; Sonartec fairway woods; Titleist irons; and Scotty Cameron putter

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