CROMWELL, Conn. — Playing in yet another PGA Tour event has given Jon Curran the opportunity to reconnect with old — but now famous — friends.
“Jonny!” Webb Simpson cried out on Thursday, giving Curran the handshake/hug associated with close friendship. “Great to see you, man. You’ve been playing well.”
Curran said he’s known Simpson since they were in their early teens, before they became college stars, before they turned pro, before Simpson won the 2011 Deutsche Bank Championship, or last year’s US Open. Simpson has won three times on tour, banked close to $14 million in career earnings, and is ranked No. 21 in the world.
Curran is ranked No. 1,211, a number that’s improving because of the season he’s had this year on the NGA Tour, a developmental circuit that has sent dozens of players on to PGA Tour success. Curran is hoping to follow in those footsteps, and with a few PGA Tour starts sprinkled in — such as this week’s Travelers Championship — he’s elevating his game and creating a better, more recognizable public profile.
“It’s been good, it’s nice to step it up and play with these guys, which is a little bit different,” Curran said. “I’m definitely more comfortable playing and playing for money, all the stuff you have to deal with. It’s just easier now, this year especially.”
The 26-year-old from Hopkinton is playing at TPC River Highlands this week on a sponsor exemption. He received a similar invitation to the Zurich Classic in April, and earned a spot in the Puerto Rico Open a month earlier through the tournament’s Monday qualifier. He missed the cut at New Orleans but tied for 24th in Puerto Rico, making $28,350 – or $6,000 more than for winning the NGA tournament in Brunswick, Ga.
That’s three PGA Tour starts this year for Curran, who prior to 2013 had played in just one tour-recognized event, the 2010 US Open at Pebble Beach, when he advanced through local and sectional qualifying. He missed the cut.
Curran’s play might be turning heads (two wins this year on the NGA Tour, and second place on the current money list), but it always helps having connections. Curran was teammates with Keegan Bradley at Hopkinton High, winning a team state championship together. Bradley has gone on to reach great heights (three PGA Tour wins, including the 2011 PGA Championship), and he’s remained one of Curran’s closest friends and strongest advocates, and set the wheels in motion back in February to get his pal an exemption.
“I did not know about Jon until Keegan said something about him out at Northern Trust, then I started looking into it, and I saw that there was something here,” said Nathan Grube, the Travelers tournament director who fields exemption requests from upward of 70 players. “We talked in March and I was impressed with his mentality, how he carried himself. It was probably toward the end of March when I said, ‘I think we’re going to give you a spot,’ and he was so thrilled, so appreciative.”
In Curran, Bradley might be a bit biased. But he also sees similarities.
“We have very similar outlooks in terms of he’s a very, very intense player, he wants to win, and he wants to be a PGA Tour player. He’s got the game to do it,” Bradley said. “He’s playing really well right now. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he went out and contended this week.”
It could still happen, but Curran will need a really good round on Friday just to make the 36-hole cut after opening Thursday with a 2-over-par 72. He turned in 2-under 33 on the front nine, then made four back-nine bogeys, despite hitting the fairway on all four holes where he dropped shots.
There’s always pressure when someone not accustomed to playing in a PGA Tour event gets a start. Even more when it comes from a sponsor exemption, because someone involved with the tournament is taking a chance on you, when they had dozens of other players they could have rewarded. Curran knows that.
“It’s important to take advantage of them. You know there’s so few starts that you’re going to get, so you try to make the most out of everything,” Curran said. “It’s almost like a major. I know that it isn’t, but it’s hard to fight that feeling, which is annoying, because it’s the same game.”
Curran said he’ll finish out the NGA season, but will also attempt to Monday qualify for two other PGA Tour events this summer, at the Greenbrier Classic and the John Deere Classic. He’s in the running for a spot in the Reno-Tahoe Open, based on an in-season money list on the NGA Tour. Then it’s likely back to Qualifying School; he advanced to second stage last year, which was a good experience, but left him with no status on either the PGA Tour or the Web.com Tour.
Curran is thankful for the opportunities he’s made for himself, such as Puerto Rico, and been given, by Zurich and Travelers. His aspirations of playing professional golf at the highest level remain stronger than ever. Among all the financial possibilities, it would reunite him with so many players he’s competed against over the years.
“This is something I’ve been trying to do for a little while now. I’m playing well, and would appreciate an opportunity or an experience to be able to go out and play with Keegan or guys like that, guys like Webb,” Curran said. “You’d rather be out here on your own accord. I’m leading the money list on the [NGA] Tour, so it’s not like I’m just getting these out of the blue. I feel good about my game.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.