By Dave Lagarde, PGATOUR.com Correspondent
Chances are there is a Nationwide Tour tournament somewhere in your future in 2008, considering it will stage 24 events and visit 21 states and Canada before the curtain comes down on the season.
So what do you do -- other than the obvious -- once you arrive, especially with some junior golfers in tow? Given the nature of the Tour, its cast of characters constantly is in flux and their names aren't necessarily familiar, so determining who to follow around the course can be tricky.
Not to worry. Here's a suggestion, especially if you want some bang for your entertainment buck. You could do a lot worse than to tag along behind Keith Nolan. Here's why:
First of all Nolan is going to be there -- at the very least in the first two rounds. This we know because Nolan is the Nationwide Tour's Iron Man, a guy who played in each of the 31 regular season events in 2007 and, now that he has enough official cash to escape conditional status in '08, plans to run the table again.
Second, the native of Dublin, Ireland, is a veritable Pied Piper, especially when it comes to kids. He loves them. And given the chance, it's highly likely they'll become fond of him.
It's all in the way Nolan, who never met a conversation he didn't like, carries himself during a competitive round. He's serious about his business for sure, but that's in the minute or less it takes him to select a club, pick a target and take a swing. Otherwise, he's a talk-a-holic who engages walking scorers, sign bearers and members of his gallery, especially kids.
Bruce and Susie Kelley learned just how much Nolan is into kids when they attended the third round of the Livermore Valley Wine Country Classic with their son Neil, 11, in tow. It was the family's first Nationwide Tour experience, and, if first impressions are lasting, they'll always have fond memories. And they'll have Nolan to thank.
The Kelleys had wandered out to the 15th hole at The Course at Wente Vineyards, where they picked up Nolan's twosome and followed it home. On the 16th hole, Nolan made a point of walking across the fairway, approached Neil and handed him a ball, autographed with a green Sharpie, complete with the requisite smiley face.
The Kelleys later learned from Nolan's caddie, Robert "Robot'' Botsford, it was one of Nolan's bogey balls -- he takes they out of play immediately after making a bogey -- which he had on No. 15. But that isn't the end of the story. Nolan carried on a conversation with Neil as he completed his round.
Nolan: Besides me, who is your favorite golfer?
Neil: Tiger Woods.
Nolan: Big surprise. He really needs your support. Doesn't he have enough going for him?
Trust me, Neil Kelley left Wente happy on that Saturday evening.
On Sunday, he reflected on the happenings.
"I always thought golfers didn't talk,'' he said. "He was really nice and fun.''
When asked if he might be inclined to follow Nolan's performance throughout 2008, Neil Kelley had a quick reply.
"Maybe I will,'' he said.
And chances are he won't be the only one.
Debbie Bronis was the walking scorer with Nolan's twosome in the final round. Nolan kept her entertained from the first tee to the final hole.
"He's really a good guy,'' Bronis said. "In fact, my son carried the sign in his group on Thursday. When he found out who I had today, he wanted to switch with me. And he was carrying the sign for the last group.''
Nolan said this all comes naturally.
"I have a lot of nervous energy, and I'm an approachable person,'' he said. "I think we're all charged with doing as much as we can to give back to the game. I'm so thankful to have a place to do something I love that I always want to do my best. Let's face it. All the volunteers I meet and the people in the galleries are going to have a lasting impression of me. So it might as well be a good one.''
About that there is no doubt.
Nolan makes it a point to volunteer to do a kids' clinic at every Nationwide Tour stop. He does whatever he can to promote The First Tee. At the conclusion of each event, he empties his bag of sleeves of balls and the remainder of his gloves. He signs each and hands them to kids.
"That makes the bag a lot lighter,'' he said, laughing. The last piece of equipment to go is his hat. It's signed with the green Sharpie.
Nolan found an emptied-handed youngster:
"Didn't get a ball?'' he inquired.
No, came the reply.
"Well,'' Nolan said, handing the boy his hat, "how about this?''
The boy's smile was priceless.
So what moved Nolan, 37, to become so generous and engaging? He has a story. His mother, Joan, brought him to the Irish Open on a practice day. He said he tried for seven hours to get an autograph from a prominent player in the field. He made an attempt before the player's round. He tried during the round. ("I realize now that wasn't a good move,'' he said.) And he waited at the putting clock after the round. When the player was done, he blew past Nolan like he wasn't there, disappearing into the clubhouse.
Joan Nolan was on the player's heels. She followed him into the clubhouse, emerging five minutes later.
"I can't repeat what my mother said,'' Nolan said. "But she did come back with an autograph.''
Nolan will never forget the incident. And it shaped the person and professional he has become. That is, very caring, very affable and a credit to his sport.