Sainz made it to the PGA Tour — but it wasn’t easy

Chicago has never been rich in PGA Tour players over at least the last three decades, but there’ll be a new one on golf’s premier circuit in the 2014-15 season. Elgin’s Carlos Sainz Jr. earned his PGA Tour card by virtue of his play on the Tour this year.

Sainz, 28, barely made it through the complicated qualifying procedure that went into effect barely a year ago. First he had to make it into the top 75 money-winners in the’s regular season. Thanks largely to one strong tournament he finished in the No. 74 position.

That put him in the Finals, a four-tournament series that also included players ranked from 125-200 in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup standings. The Tour offered PGA Tour cards to the top 25 on the regular season money list and the top 25 in the playoffs. Of the 50 who advanced Sainz ranked No. 49.

Between the regular season and playoff series in his rookie season on the Tour Sainz had but one top-10 finish and made only 11 cuts in 24 tournaments, yet he still earned playing privileges on the PGA Tour.

“You can look at it different ways,’’ said Sainz. “Getting there with just one top-10 is pretty amazing. Everyone judges you by the number of cuts you make, but really it’s all about how the tour is structured. It’s so top heavy with its money structure. There’s a huge disparity between finishing No. 1 and No. 75. That gives a guy like myself a chance to get to the next level.’’

Sainz’ road to the PGA Tour was a difficult one. He started dreaming about getting there while playing in Illinois Junior Golf Assn. tournaments when he was 15 years old. The dream seemed possible after his graduation from Elgin Larkin High School and a four-year college career at Mississippi State.

He turned pro after that and spent three seasons on the Canadian PGA Tour before surviving qualifying school for the Tour in the fall of 2013.

“It’s been a crazy learning experience for me,’’ he said. “I had the Canadian Tour to fall back on, but the travel was so different in the It was a different culture, playing on different grasses. I was just trying to learn.’’

That wasn’t easy. His first tournaments were in Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Panama and Mexico before the schedule shifted to U.S. courses. His breakthrough came at the Price Cutter Charity Classic in Springfield, Mo., where he tied for second and won $44,550. That represented most of his regular season winnings.

The $67,897 that he earned in the regular season allowed him to keep playing in the postseason events, and his game came together while he was completing a grueling stretch of 14 tournaments in as many weeks. He had a tie for 19th and a tie for 12th in the first two tournaments in the Finals, then missed the cut by one stroke in the third.

With his card in serious jeopardy, Sainz got through the season-ending Tour Championship in a tie for 31st place. He had to sweat out a bogey on the last hole, but that finish was just good enough to move him to golf’s next level.

While making it to the PGA Tour is a giant step forward, keeping his card will be just as difficult. He’ll have to finish among the top 125 money winners and won’t have many tournaments to do it.

“My priority will get me into between 15 and 20 events,’’ he said. “It comes down to me being ready to play when I do get in. I have enough events, in my eyes, to make it. It might be harder for me, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.’’

He couldn’t get into the first tournament of the PGA Tour’s new season, the Open, but that enabled him to get a much-needed rest. He didn’t play for 12 days before defending his title in the Chicago Open at Cantigny. Sainz didn’t win but finished in a strong tie for third as Andy Ruthkoski of Muskegon, Mich., won the title.

Still, the fall has been kind to Sainz in the past, and he expected to get into both the last two November tournaments — Sanderson Farms Championship in Mississippi and the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico — before the PGA Tour goes on its December break. Good showings in those events would get his PGA career off to a good start and would be reminiscent of how he got to the Tour just a year ago.

In a torrid late-season stretch in 2013 Sainz won a Canadian PGA Tour event, lost the Illinois Open title the next week in a playoff, won his Chicago Open and then survived the first qualifying school.

“I get better as the year goes on,’’ he said. “The fall is a great time to catch fire.’’